Resolving the Objective-Subjective Conflict in Moral Valuation

An inquiry into the problems of the origin of values
in general and of moral values in particular


The context of this discussion is focused on values specifically appreciated by humans. This clarificatory introduction is important to distinguish human values from things ‘valued’ by other living species in the animal and plant realms. The issue of value enters this particular consideration as humans observe how plants and animals are benefiting from their environments. Under these circumstances, it may be assumed that animals and plants ‘value’ the things from which they benefit in terms of survival and life sustenance. We say that water, plants, and air are valuable for animals because the latter depends on them in these animals’ need to drink, eat, and breathe. However, we as humans are limited as to the access to evidence pertaining to whether animals really ‘value’ these things or not in the same way that we do. In other words, do these animals really consciously exercise a sense of appreciation in the act of ‘valuating’ the things that are useful to them? Is such an act really a valuation? Is there a way for us to find certain answers to these concerns? Is it worthwhile to deal with this matter seriously in the context of this particular treatise’s main inquiry? These questions being unanswered at this point in time (or may even be unanswerable at any point in time), a better course is to proceed on the path that has been beaten to resolve the major burden of this treatise.

Are Values Basically Objective in Origin?

There are people who claim that values have external sources — points of origin distinct from us. In many cases, these external origins are even considered to be of a higher nature such as God, Bathala, Allah, the Absolute Reality, Brahman, Nature, etc. With these sources, values emanating from them are deemed to be thoroughly objective. This perspective assumes the non-necessity of the human factor in the existence of values. In other words, humans are not necessary for the formation of values, so that values exist independent of humans. In this sense, it is said that values are basically objective and it specifically means that (1) values are factual properties regardless of whether there are humans or not, or (2) values emanate from supernatural origin, or (3) values are inherent in nature.

Regarding the first, it doesn’t make sense at all to say that humans could not have valued things if these things were not to the least inherently valuable. It is one of the most basic assumptions that things are deemed valuable based on the appreciation that humans extend to them so as to satisfy or achieve human purposes. In short, things of this world are axiologically neutral by and in themselves and can only be said to be either valuable or insignificant depending on the purposes that humans have determined for their usefulness or uselessness. The words of Wittgenstein at 6.41 of the Tractatus agree to this point:

…In the world everything is as it is and everything happens as it does happen; in it no value exists — and if it did exist it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must be outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.[1]

Further clarification of this view is revealed by the pericope where it is located in the Tractatus:

6.373 The world is independent of my will.

6.374 Even if all that we wish for were to happen, still this would only be a favour granted by fate, so to speak; for there is no logical connexion between the will and the world, which would guarantee it, and the supposed physical connexion itself is surely not something that we could will.

6.43 If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world not the facts — not what can be expressed by means of language. In short, the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is different from that of the unhappy man.[2]

The whole point being presented here is summarized in Wittgenstein’s Notebooks (p. 77): ‘Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.'[3]

Things of this world can only become valuable as humans attribute values to them. This matter of values further extends particularly more strongly to aesthetics and ethics, the latter being our focus of concern in this treatise. We can then say based on the presuppositions that we have already established — that in matters of ethics and morality, the stronger can the claim be that moral values can never be found inherent in states of affairs or events without humans to value them. Moral values are therefore strictly basically human in origin. Values in general and moral values, in particular, are basically of human origin; hence, they are basically subjective in terms of origin.

The entirety of the previous discussion can be essentially presented via the following logical arguments:

1. ‘Values are basically either inherent to things valued or human-attributed. If values are basically inherent, then, they are not basically human-attributed. Hence, if values are basically human-attributed, then, they are not basically inherent.’

2. ‘Values are basically either inherent to things valued or human-attributed. If values are basically inherent, then, they are basically objective in origin. If values are basically human-attributed, then, they are basically subjective in origin. Therefore, values are either basically objective or basically subjective in origin.’

3. ‘Values are basically either objective or subjective in origin. If values are basically objective in origin, then, they are not subjective in origin. Therefore, if values are not basically objective in origin, then, they are subjective in origin.’

Now that the first argument supportive of the objective origin of values has been debunked, could the next to be a tenable claim? Do values emanate from a supernatural origin? [The term ‘supernatural’ used in the context of the succeeding discussion is different in meaning from the context of its use in Wittgenstein’s ‘Lecture on Ethics.’ In the latter context, the term ‘supernatural’ is linguistically contrasted with the ‘natural’ which is the realm where the sciences operate. The contrast being linguistic in character does not in any way imply an affirmation of the reality of a higher dimension of existence inhabited by more intelligent and more powerful denizens. Says Wittgenstein: ‘I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it. I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc.’]

Perhaps it could still be safely said that the majority of people in this world believe in a supernatural entity they call ‘god’ or even many of this type of being which are called ‘gods.’ They generally believe that values, specifically moral ones, emanate from or dispensed by this ‘supernatural reality’ or ‘ultimate reality,’ if you will. He (if we want to personify this reality) has formed the world as well as the things found in this world and has established values — both artistic and moral — for all creation, more specifically humans, to obey. Of course, it is not logically impossible for such supernatural entities to exist and have done such dispensation of values. However, we can neither make any final conclusion or affirmation as to the certainty of their existence. We should definitely opt to exercise strong belief — which could be construed as ‘faith’ in religious language game–but such cannot be considered as objective proof.

Looking at the problem now of which of the set of moral laws or moral bans we ought to obey, the complication has been created by the differences among groups of people or communities of people who recognize different ‘gods’ or supernatural beings: the Judeo-Christian tradition; the Hindus; the Confucians; the Taoists, etc. These supernatural beings as well as the thought systems and religions honoring and worshipping them have accompanying systems of morality. There could be some points of similarity, but in a lot of instances, differences are so pronounced and oftentimes very wide. It is, therefore, difficult if not really impossible for us to ascertain the most accurate supernatural foundation. This factor tells us that no evidence is available to prove the necessary supernatural origin of objective moral values. At this point, nothing is left in our minds but the impression that even the so-called morality of supernatural origin is subjectively attained by people who needs and wants are determined out of a common goal to live and enjoy life in a peaceful and productive milieu rather than having been ‘commanded’ to be and to do so from a supernatural dimension.

What about the third option now — are values inherent in nature? Those who hold the notion that values are inherent in nature promote the argument that moral laws are within the realm of nature and hence, part of the natural world. It is further held by them that anything that violates or goes contrary to nature is therefore wrong. But there seems to have some confusion here in treating ‘moral laws’ at par with what science tells us as ‘natural laws’ like the law of gravity, the law of buoyancy, and others. There is a difference in meaning when the word ‘law’ is used in relation to nature and when the same word is used in relation to morality.

Natural laws are descriptive, whereas moral laws are prescriptive. Natural laws, on the other hand, are generalizations based on contrast regularities discovered in events or states of affairs. On the other hand, moral laws are ‘invented‘ for the maintenance of order and to promote acceptable behaviors and attitudes or conducts in human relations. In H.O. Mounce’s discussion of Wittgenstein’s view of ethics in the Tractatus, Mounce says: ‘The ethical problem is not to determine what is so but what to do, what attitude one is to adopt.'[4] For those who affirm the reality of ‘natural moral laws,’ one thing should be proved: that there are laws discovered and discoverable (or observed and observable) in nature telling humans the way they ought or ought not to behave. But it seems to be difficult, if not impossible at all, to prove it because nothing prescriptive actually issues out of nature. In other words, nature does not demand morality to be acted on by humans. It is a reconfirmation that moral values are not basically objective in origin even if we appeal to nature. To ‘see’ in nature some events or states of affairs that move or lead us to behave morally is but an interpretation of an entire gamut of experience involving human interest in favor of and advantageous to our circumstances, needs, desires, objectives, and satisfaction. In this sense, moral values formed out of our relationship with nature are therefore basically subjective. In the article ‘Naturalism,’ Charles R. Pigden says: ‘In the famous Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore contended that most moralists have been naturalists and that all naturalists are guilty of a common fallacy. They have confused the property of goodness with the things that possess that property or with some other property that good things possess. This is what naturalistic fallacy is: a mixing of two distinct items.'[5]

The Basic Subjective Origin of Values, Particularly Moral Values

The notion that values have a basic subjective origin doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always subjective through and through, i.e., at all times. Hence, when it is argued that values have a basic subjective origin, what is hereby contradicted is the opposite notion that values have a basic objective origin — not that values are objective. It only means that even if it is claimed that values have a basic subjective origin, such a claim does not necessarily contradict the notion that values may be objective. This matter is a vital aspect of the thesis of this treatise which in the progressive development of the discussions about it will ultimately unveil the non-contradictory character of what is being proposed as ethics that is both objective and relative. Relativity of values in general and moral values, in particular, is however an offshoot of subjectivity and this matter will be discussed later to summarize the points being raised here. In logical terms, we say:

1. ‘Values either have a basic subjective origin or a basic objective origin. It has been demolished that values have a basic objective origin. Hence, values have a basic subjective origin.’

2. ‘Objective values may issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. Values are really of basic subjective origin. Therefore, it cannot be that objective values will not issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective.’

3. ‘Objective values may issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. Relative values may also issue out of values whose basic origin is subjective. And the basic origin of values is really subjective. Therefore, it can be that values are both relative and objective.’

4. ‘If values can both be relative and objective, then, it cannot be that there is a contradiction between relative values and objective values.’

Going back to the issue of the basic subjective origin of values, particularly moral values, it is simply the idea that the starting point or the begin-all of valuation is a person’s expression of his/ her personal desires or feelings. Nevertheless, the Humean view that reason doesn’t play any role in the function of moral judgment is not hereby affirmed. This writer believes otherwise. [James Rachels observes in his article ‘Subjectivism’: ‘[T]he function of moral judgment, says Hume, is to guide conduct, but reason alone can never tell us what to do. Reason merely informs us of the nature and consequences of our action and of the logical relations between propositions… Hume concludes that in the final analysis, ‘Morality is determined by sentiment.'[6] Reason plays a vital role in such a function because the acceptability of someone’s personal feelings or desires demands rationality from a moral agent and reasonableness in a moral act. Perhaps, the rhetorical statement of Blaise Pascal applies here: ‘The heart has its reason that reason does not know.’

However, that which we consider subjective may evolve towards the direction of the objective. Yet an ‘evolved’ value seen in the objective realm doesn’t have the ‘natural’ characteristics inherently found in the original properties of matters of fact located in this realm. At this point, let us further discuss the complexities surrounding the issue of the subjectivity of values so that a smooth transition could be effected from subjectivity to relativity which is actually so much related between each other. In fact, value relativity issues out of value subjectivity. In other words, value subjectivity leads to value relativity and there could be no value relativity without value subjectivity.

Logically we say, ‘There is value relativity if and only if there is value subjectivity. And there is value subjectivity. Therefore, there is value relativity.’

From Simple to Critical Subjectivity in Ethics: James Rachels’ Analysis

Simple Subjectivism

In James Rachels’ discussion of subjectivity in his article, ‘Subjectivism,’ he distinguishes between two types of subjectivism: the simple one and the improved version called emotivism. This is the way his discussion goes:

The historical development of ethical subjectivism illustrates a process typical of philosophical theories. It began as a simple idea — in the words of David Hume, that morality is more a matter of feeling than of reason. But as objections were raised against the theory, and as its defenders tried to answer those objections, the theory became more complicated. So far, we have not attempted to formulate the theory very precisely — we have been content with a rough statement of its basic idea. Now, however, we need to go a bit beyond that.

One way of formulating ethical subjectivism more precisely is this: we take it to be the thesis that when a person says that something is morally good or bad, this means that he or she approves of that thing, or disapproves of it, and nothing more…

We might call this version of the theory simple subjectivism… However, simple subjectivism is open to several rather obvious objections, because it has implications that are contrary to what we know to be the case (or at least contrary to what we think we know) about the nature of moral evaluation.

For one thing, simple subjectivism contradicts the plain fact that we can sometimes be wrong in our moral evaluations. None of us are infallible. We make mistakes and when we discover that we are mistaken we may want to change our judgments. But if simple subjectivism were correct, this would be impossible — because simple subjectivism implies that each of us in infallible.

…In the face such difficulties, many philosophers have chosen to reject the whole idea of ethical subjectivism. Others, however, have taken a different approach. The problem, they say, is not that the basic idea of ethical subjectivism is wrong. The problem is that ‘simple subjectivism’ is too simple a way or expressing that idea. Thus, these philosophers have continued to have confidence in the basic idea of ethical subjectivism and have tried to refine it — to give it a new, improved formulation — so that these difficulties can be overcome.

The improved version was a theory that came to be known as emotivism…[7]

The criticism towards simple subjectivism is a valid one if this type of subjectivism really creates difficulties to clearly determine the rightness or wrongness of moral evaluations. In this situation, everybody becomes entitled to his or her moral views and opinions without the obligation of testing whether his or her moral evaluation is right or wrong. (We could sense a situation of relativism here, but this is not the type of relativistic position that is advocated in this treatise.) In other words, there is really right or wrong moral evaluation and under this condition, everybody really becomes ‘infallible.’ Some critiques of simple subjectivism who do not intend to totally reject the whole notion of ethical subjectivism but to salvage its more basic idea are, however, correct in their intention to transcend its prominent errors and make refinement of it.

As has previously been discussed, the basic subjectivity of values in general, and moral values, in particular, owing to the fact that values have a basic subjective origin is an empirically defensible and logically coherent position. This is the basic idea of ethical subjectivism which is salvageable. But is emotivism the truly critical alternative to transcend the errors of simple subjectivism? Let us look at emotivism closely.

Emotivism: An Improvement from Simple Subjectivism

The starting point of emotivism is the recognition that humans use language in so many ways. We use it not only in expressing factual statements whereby we give information that may either be true or false. With language we may also issue requests and commands whose objective is not to give information or describe a state of affairs but rather prescribe an action or attitude. The statement, ‘President Macapagal-Arroyo is against human rights violations,’ is descriptive, whereas, ‘Let us condemn human rights violations!’ is prescriptive.

Looking at the issue of moral language, emotivism holds that ‘moral language is not fact-stating language; it is not typically used to convey information. Its purpose is entirely different. It is used, first, as a means of influencing people’s behavior: if someone says ‘You ought not to do that,’ they are trying to stop you from doing it. And second, moral language is used to express (not report) one’s attitude.'[8]

Comparing simple subjectivism with emotivism at this point, we say, on the one hand, simple subjectivism grasps ethical statements as factual statements reporting the speaker’s attitude. So that when President Macapagal-Arroyo says that she is against human rights violation, such is tantamount to saying, ‘I (Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo) do not approve human rights violation’ — a factual statement about his attitude. On the other hand, emotivism disagrees that Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo’s words are an expression of fact. According to emotivism, what Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo says is simply, ‘Damn human rights violation!’ or ‘To hell with human rights violation!’

Regarding this view, Rachels observes that the difference between simple subjectivism and emotivism is not a superficial hair-splitting matter but an important one. Simple subjectivism says that statements of moral judgment are statements about feelings, whereas, emotivism says that they are statements of feelings. Thus, they cannot be subjected to truth-value analysis. If I believe that X acted alone in plotting the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and another person believes that X was ordered or commanded by a group of conspiring Marcos cronies to plot the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, such a disagreement is over facts. However, if I advocate the view that capital punishment or death penalty is an effective deterrent to the commission of heinous crimes while another believes otherwise, the disagreement is in opinion or views. The first type of disagreement can be solved by an appeal to facts which in turn will determine which of the two beliefs is true (because both cannot be true). The second type, however, is a matter of making a choice based on desires or feelings, i.e., making one of the views desirable over the other according to the particular individual’s perspective, barring the possibility of choosing both.

Rachels rightly echoes the points made by the American philosopher C.L. Stevenson (the most prominent spokesperson of emotivism) in his classical book on the subject of emotivism, Ethics and Language, that such an opposition is a ‘disagreement in attitude and contrast it with disagreements about attitudes. Moral disagreement, says Stevenson, are disagreements in attitude. Simple subjectivism could not explain moral disagreement because once it interpreted moral judgments as a statement about attitudes, the disagreement vanished.'[9]

There has been an expression of a similar view prior to this in a chapter of an earlier work by Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, entitled ‘Critique of Ethics and Theology’:

Thus, although our theory of ethics might fairly be said to be radically subjectivist, it differs in a very important respect from the orthodox subjectivist theory. For the orthodox subjectivist does not deny, as we do, that the sentences of a moralizer express genuine propositions. All he denies is that they express propositions about the speaker’s feelings. If this were so, ethical judgments clearly would be capable of being true or false. They would be true if the speaker had the relevant feelings, and false if he had not. And this is a matter whish is, in principle, empirically verifiable. Furthermore they could be significantly contradicted. For if I say, ‘Tolerance is a virtue,’ and someone answers, ‘you don’t approve of it,’ he would on the ordinary subjectivist theory, be contradicting me, because in saying that tolerance was a virtue, I should not be making any statement about my own feelings or about anything else. I should simply be evincing my feelings, which is not all the same thing as saying that I have them.[10]

However, not all is secured yet for emotivism’s place as a formidable position having transcended the loopholes of simple subjectivism. Rachel makes the criticism that emotivism has also faced some rough sailing. Says he: ‘Emotivism also had its problems and they were sufficiently serious that today most philosophers reject the theory. One of the main problems was that emotivism could not account for the place of reason in ethics.'[11]

Rational Subjectivism

Rachels who is a subjectivist would classify his variety of subjectivism as rational. According to him, there ought to be good reasons to support value judgment of any kind in general and moral judgment in particular. We tend to evaluate actions as either right or wrong. Mere expressions of personal likes and dislikes may not need supporting reasons. Without the latter, such expressions amount only to arbitrary statements. Rachels says, ‘[A]ny adequate theory of the nature of moral judgments and the reasons that support them. It is at just this point that emotivism falters.'[12]

In conclusion, Rachels comments:

Thus, as our final attempt to formulate an adequate subjectivist understanding of ethical judgment, we might say, nothing is morally right if it is such that the process of thinking through its nature and consequences would cause or sustain a feeling of approval toward it in a person who was being as reasonable and impartial as is humanly possible (italics supplied).[13]

An Evaluation of J. Rachels’ Analysis

The central issue brought out by Rachels in his critique of emotivism and in the formulation of his ‘rational’ brand of subjectivism is the importance of reason as the determinant of the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. Basically, there should be no quarrel at all regarding this matter. The only problem here is that it is difficult to establish objective rationality or reasonableness in matters of ethics or morality on the individual plane. In other words, the only meaningful rationality on that plane is subjective considering the fact that an individual A’s moral choice of x is rational or reasonable depending on circumstances that led him/ her to make such a moral choice. Whereas, in the case of individual B’s moral rejection of x, such is likewise rational or reasonable from his/ her perspective and in his/ her own right. So, A and B are rational or reasonable in their own respective decisions, even if they are opposite to or contrasting each other.

The element of ‘thinking through’ that is being proposed here by Rachels is an acceptable aspect of making moral judgments rational or reasonable. But again, such a process — if we call it a process at all — is done on the individual plane. Hence, the function of which is still subjective, i.e., depending on the circumstance and conditions surrounding the individual person making the choice or decision.

All in all, the basic subjective origin of moral judgments has been proven once and for all a formidable assumption in the tracing of the rootage of morality and ethics. This assumption is also the foundation of moral or ethical relativity which is the bridge that ultimately leads us to a more realistic type of ethical or moral objectivity that is far different from an ethical objectivity that depends on moral facts. The type of moral or ethical objectivity that is herein being proposed dialectically develops from the subjective rootage and evolves therefrom along relativity until it reaches the point of objectivity. In short, this type of moral or ethical objectivity cannot really be formulated without making any basic and initial recognition of the twofold reality of its subjective-relative beginnings.

We cannot actually underestimate the basic importance of subjectivity in its universal applicability. Even science basically starts off from subjectivity. In this regard, let me quote Prof. Claro Ceniza, the eminent symbolic logician and analytic philosopher of De La Salle University-Manila, in his article ‘Logic of Confirmation and Objectivity’ that appears in SOPHIA, vol. XXV, 1995-96:

Subjectivity can be helpful in producing preliminary hypotheses, even in science. In fact, there is no other way of producing preliminary hypotheses except by ways that are affected and influenced by subjectivity. We tend to advance preliminary theses to which our personal experiences and cultures direct us. Science, however, and everyday life cannot remain on that level. There is always an objective way of finding out what the object in question really is either by common consent or better through the process of confirmation and disconfirmation.[14]


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as quoted in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (ed.) H.O. Mounce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.94.
2. Ibid., pp. 95-96.
3. Ibid., p. 95.
4. Mounce, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, p. 97.
5. Charles Pigden, ‘Naturalism’ in A Companion to Ethics (ed.) Singer, Peter (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), p. 426.
6. James Rachels, ‘Subjectivism’ in A Companion to Ethics, p. 433.
7. Ibid., pp. 434-436.
8. Ibid., p. 437.
9. Ibid., p. 438.
10. A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 144.
11. Op. cit., Rachels, p. 438.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., p. 440.
14. Claro Ceniza, ‘Logic of Confirmation and Objectivity’ in SOPHIA, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. (ed.) Elwood, Brian Douglas (Manila: De La Salle University Press, Inc., 1995-1196), p. 40

© Ruel F. Pepa


In the language of the existentialist, there are only two types of being: “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself”. On the one hand, the being-in-itself does not “out-stand” (ex-sistere), i.e., it has no power to assert itself and hence cannot project the future, much less its own future. In this sense, it doesn’t have the capability to foresee what lies ahead in its reality. It is a finished product, so to speak, that lacks the ability to answer the basic ontological questions: (1) Why am I here? (2) What must I do? and (3) What can I hope for? The being-in-itself has nothing to pursue. It may actually be a living organism for it grows and reproduces its own kind (as in the lower animal and the plant kingdoms) but it is not endowed with self-consciousness to think of and reflect on the meaning of its life.

On the other hand, the being-for-itself is endowed with self-consciousness and is concerned about the aforementioned basic ontological questions. The being-for-itself has, therefore, the capability to know her/himself and give her/his life meaning. Moreover, her/his inherent creativity makes it possible for her/him to act on matters that connect with how s/he has defined her/himself. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it in his lecture, “Existence Is a Humanism,” delivered at Club Maintenant in Paris, on 29 October 1945, existence–i.e., the state of being self-conscious and self-reflective–precedes essence, i.e., meaningfulness. In other words, it is first of all important to realize that there is no meaningfulness established prior to existence.

Meaningfulness emanates from existence which is fundamentally represented by the human being as the being-for-itself. The human being as such is not a finished product whose meaningfulness has already been defined even prior to her/his birth. The human being as the being-for-itself defines the trajectory of his life journey; nobody has previously defined it for her/him. The human being is, therefore, an unfinished project, i.e., a being that is always in the making as long as he continues to breathe the breath of life on planet Earth.

Having this in mind, the human being as the being-for-itself is always facing the future while contemplating on what s/he needs to do to cope with life’s complexities and challenges that lie ahead. This is the very basic stuff of human reality–a reality that is not pre-conceived, rigid and unchangeable but dependent on the readiness, willingness and assertiveness of the human being to exercise her/his creativity to shape it and make it meaningful for her/his own purposes.

This reality we call the world is generally characterized by expectations. In the human act of making this world a better place to live in, expectations are common. We say that in many instances we have gotten into, we being human always tend to project our own personal expectations. It could even be construed that under normal circumstances, logic may establish the necessary connection between humanity and expectations. We expect to live a good life. We expect things to get better than before. We expect success in all productive endeavors we have gotten involved in. We expect other people to see the merits and benefits of the useful things we do. Human reality is, therefore, a world of expectations.

Expectations are common stuff of human reality. Unfulfilled expectations that lead to disappointments of varying degrees of intensity do not break the tendency of people to continue to expect in other instances. It is our future-oriented life journey that gives us the pull towards reckoning events we expect to happen.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 21 November 2019

Hong Kong and the Philippines as Pivotal Platforms of US-China Conflict

The Hong Kong uprising is part of a widespread conflict between the US and China. These are two global behemoths fighting it out to have dominant control over the global economy.

It all started when the US economy was on the verge of a catastrophic slump and needed to be massively propped up through an enormous investment from an external source. This was the condition that led China to get into the US economy. The biggest business endeavor of the US that relies on imperialistic maneuverings is the creation of violent conflicts among nations through arms sales and the global control of petroleum industries where such are available. This is the main reason why the US economy had gotten into serious trouble. This condition opened up an opportunity for China to take advantage of investing in the US economy to save the latter from utter disaster. As of now, the US debt to China is 1.11 trillion dollars.

This whole scenario has put the US in an extremely difficult situation. As a case in point, when groups of Chinese technology experts entered the US at different times to steal modern technological innovations, the US was helpless to prevent it. In fact, until this point in time, Chinese technologists continue to enter the US to further steal more available technologies in different parts of the country. This condition has spawned the growing tension between the US and China. The most serious and the most controversial US assault against China was when the former attacked Hua Wei through a tactical conspiracy with Canada. We don’t need to rehearse this story since it had been on the news headlines for weeks, even months.

In the most recent developments, the US is now financially and logistically supporting the uprising in Hong Kong by employing destabilization campaigns which it has mastered through time as a leading conflict creator in various parts of the world where it has major economic interests. The upheaval in Hong Kong is not expected to find a solution as the US pours in millions of dollars into it. It has therefore transformed into a full-blown struggle that does not seem to have a foreseeable end. Why? Because China cannot fight the US head-on despite the fact that China has all the capabilities to demolish the US in practically all fronts–militarily and economically. The excruciating reason why China cannot destroy the US lies in the fact that the US owes China trillions of dollars! China cannot afford to lose the trillions of dollars it has loaned to the US by destroying it. If China destroyed the US, how do you think would the former recover the enormous amount of wealth it has loaned to the latter? Simply put, the situation is one of a STALEMATE, in chess parlance.

All of these events have a direct bearing on what has been going on in the Philippines wherein China is set to take over the Philippine economy through political manipulation as it holds the present Philippine government hostage to its whims and wishes. This is how it works: The US attempts to destroy China by financially and logistically supporting the Hong Kong uprising as a retaliatory move against the aggressive posturing of China in Southeast Asia wherein the prime US interest is at stake as China enters and exploits the Philippines, the most important US lapdog in the region.

As an aftermath, the Philippines, not China, is the biggest loser in this conflict. Why? In the final analysis, losing Hong Kong is not a big deal to China. China losing Hong Kong is not as crucial as the US losing the Philippines. In this connection, the US has very recently launched a strategic move. It has placed an enticing bait before the stupid president of the Philippines; something that Duterte didn’t have the common sense to think that if put into action, such would absolutely boomerang on his face. The US deceptively convinced Duterte to offer Vice President Leni Robredo a challenge and that is to be the helmswoman to handle and solve the seemingly unsolvable illegal drug proliferation in the country. Why did the US come up with this plan? Because the US has already produced a solid list of all Chinese drug lords who are in partnership with local drug lords operating in the Philippines that include the close buddies of Philippine President Duterte, even his son. That is precisely the ace that the US is in possession of right now which in the end will lead to the implication of the Philippines president himself.

If this gambit pushes through, Duterte and his close allies will definitely plunge into utter ignominy and the end of China’s domination over the Philippines is incontrovertibly sealed off. At the end of the day, the Philippine economy and politics will once again be under the control of US imperialistic hegemony. This spells the tragic condition of the Philippines: It will never be able to free itself from the clutches of exploitation perpetrated over it by the gigantic global powers. Philippine independence will, therefore, remain an elusive dream.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 16 November 2019

Success Deconstructed

At first glance, there is always something good in this word. It is basically positive as it gets associated with achievement most of the time. Its adjective form–successful–makes it more powerful as it is generally used to describe people who have already arrived, so to speak. The concept of success is so engulfed with the aura of greatness that its impeccable connotation repels all the negative specks that pass by and hover around it. Success is characterized by a feeling of exhilaration and thus calls for a celebration. It is what we all want to attain. It is our goal. Some even construct material representations of success and display them on a most visible platform like a pedestal. By and large, we are preoccupied with it–too much preoccupied that in certain instances, it becomes an obsession.

But there is one challenge lurking some distance away which is ready to strip success off its regal trappings and let it lie naked in the sun. It is still “success” but its configuration has totally changed. It has become a neutral concept that does not necessarily command admiration and praise in the objective–or perhaps, it is better to say intersubjective–sense. Though, they are still expressed but more in the subjective sense. And at this point, we are face to face with the reality that success is neutral and does not necessarily evoke something always good. Well, perhaps, “good” could still be used but not necessarily in the moral or ethical sense. Why? Because success may traverse both sides of the morality divide: the moral and the immoral, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

Success does not choose its moral terrain. In fact, a closer analysis reveals that success is amoral. It is hailed and celebrated by both good and bad people–law-abiding citizens and criminal elements in society. A criminal syndicate that has finally achieved its goal has the same degree of elation as a marketing company that has achieved its sales target within a certain period of time. These are instances of success regardless of the moral issues behind them.

In the context of a school classroom, two students successfully passed an examination and achieved grades with flying colors after their test papers had been checked. But a closer look reveals two different stories: one succeeded after spending sleepless nights studying the coverage of the exam while the other succeeded in using cheat sheets concealed elsewhere in his body while taking the exam. Nobody found the nasty thing the latter did and he was therefore doubly successful.

In the present discussion, we can cite myriads of success stories both exemplary and odious which in the process has directed us to deconstruct the concept of success. As a matter of semantic configuration, we have at this point arrived at a realization that success does not necessarily connect with what is morally good or morally right on the basis of some established ethical standards. There are successful professionals in their chosen fields but there are also successful criminals in the illegal activities that they have mastered. But don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of instances where the activities of both professionals and criminals intersect. And a lot of times they are successful.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 13 November 2019

On Cheating

Using the (later) Wittgensteinian (1) criterion for understanding-facilitation through meaning-clarification, the meaning of a term (it could be a word or a phrase) is its use. Technically, we call it, “the use theory of meaning”. It basically tells us that there is no accurate way to get to the meaning of a term unless it is used in a sentence thereby establishing its context. Nobody automatically knows the meaning of the word “bat” unless one uses it in a sentence. In the English language, it could at least be two things: the flying mammal or the stick used in playing baseball. We could think of more related examples.

Having this concern in mind, it is initially inaccurate to immediately come up with a value judgment on the concept of “cheating” unless we put it in a proper context. Nevertheless, we generally have a negative reaction to cheating as we automatically connect it with an immoral act. Simply put, we unquestionably understand it as an issue that violates certain established moral standards. There could not have been any problem here had the term “cheating” not been used in another sense.

At this point, one more important aspect of concept-signification may be raised: the use of a concept in the literal as well as in the figurative sense. One common register or collocation that we could think of in relation to the use of the term “cheat” in the figurative sense is, “cheat(ing) death”. It means being able to survive a near-death situation ( it could be an accident), or, using another common register, “a close call”. “Cheat” could also mean an easy way to overcome a difficulty as in the case of a non-native learner of the English language who struggles to pronounce the past tense/past participle form of the verb “ask” i.e., “asked”. Instead of getting into the difficulty of saying “askt”, the “cheat” is to get rid of the “k” and simply say, “ast”. In both instances, the term “cheating” or “cheat” is free from the negative moral judgment.

Another term that uses the word “cheat” without automatically connecting it with what is generally considered immoral is “cheat sheet” which, according to the online Cambridge dictionary is “a piece of paper, computer file, etc. that gives you useful information about a subject, or helps you remember or do something.” (2) However, the connotation that gives it a negative implication is likewise found in the same entry as we get to read the following:” . . . sometimes used for cheating in a test or examination.” (3) In other words, the “cheat sheet” is a neutral thing until such is used as a concealed tool while a student is having an examination.

In a traditional school setting where memorization is given more importance than the more solid aspects of education like interpretation, critical analysis, evaluation, and pragmatization, among others, cheating is common. This pedagogical method is known as “banking system” (4) wherein students are encouraged to memorize lessons without a thorough understanding of their substances. This method is likened to depositing money in the bank at one point and later withdrawing it at another. In a classroom situation, the lessons memorized (“deposited”) are expected to be poured out (“withdrawn”) in an examination. This is a situation that opens up all possible doors to cheating.

And now, we enter the realm of ethics and morals where cheating is adjudged beneath human decency and integrity. As an immoral act, cheating assaults fairness and truthfulness. As such, it is in league with dishonesty, deception, lying, and stealing. It aims to take advantage of opportunities to get over and above other people through iniquitous maneuverings. In committing the act of cheating, one underestimates and disparages the worth of another person’s humanity.

Despite all the aforementioned considerations, cheating is everywhere: In government and politics, in business and industry, in merchandise shops, in personal engagements, just to name a few. In other words, cheating is something prevalent and commonplace. In fact, in certain instances, cheating is deemed normal and dismissed as negligible as it has somehow evolved through time and has in the process gotten incorporated in the cultural apparatus of people in a social setting. What we witness in this circumstance are people cheating each other as they want to get back at the ones who cheated them before. Human societies anywhere are replete with cheating occurrences because cheaters are located in every nook and cranny of social engagements.

From the viewpoint of utilitarian ethical theory, cheating is not absolutely immoral if it is committed to promoting the happiness and well-being of the majority of people in a particular setting. A case in point is in an organization where the leadership consists of authoritarian, manipulative and exploitative taskmasters who have long been the cause of dissatisfaction, devitalization, and demoralization of people under them. Getting back at these authoritarian leaders by deceiving and cheating them for the purpose of getting even is the most common retaliatory act. In this connection, it wants to say that cheating could be exonerated in particular cases on the basis of some specific conditions initially laid out. As Machiavelli said, “The end justifies the means.”

On the other side of the ethical divide, virtue ethics is well-defined in terms of the notion that what matters most as right or wrong, good or bad, is not the consequences of an action but rather the action itself as it is carried out by a person of known moral integrity. In this sense, no virtuous person will ever act on the basis of the consequences s/he expects to occur. In the case of cheating, it is considered morally wrong in all aspects and angles and it must not be effected in whatever way possible. It is therefore definitely virtuous to confront authoritarian / manipulative / exploitative leaders and expose their wrongdoings rather than resort to cheating as an equalizer. The point being raised here may be construed as unachievable but ideals are ideals and it only takes the solid willingness of committed people to pragmatize these ideals.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 7 November 2019


(1) The “later” Wittgenstein is the Wittgenstein of the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations in contrast to the “early” Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus fame.


(3) Ibid.

(4) Cf. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970; revised 1993, 2000, 2005)

Click to access freire_pedagogy_of_the_oppresed_ch2-3.pdf