Filipino concept of justice

As one of the 10 holders of the “Chief Justice Panganiban Professorial Chairs on Liberty and Prosperity,” Dean Jose Manuel I. Diokno began his lecture with two questions: Is justice an imported Western concept? Do we have a native Filipino concept of justice?

Language and history. Citing his illustrious father, Sen. Jose W. “Ka Pepe” Diokno, the law dean of De La Salle University said that the answers can be extracted from our language and history. So readers will not lose the full flavor of his treatise, let me quote him directly (with some cuts to cram it in my allotted space):

“Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Ilonggos and Pampangos have a common word for justice: katarungan. The root word of katarungan is tarong, a Visayan word which means straight, upright, appropriate or correct. For Filipinos, therefore, justice is rectitude, doing the morally right act, being upright, or doing what is appropriate.

“And since justice includes doing what is appropriate or what is right, it includes the concept of equity, for which we have no native word. In this respect, our language is different from the English language which distinguishes between justice and equity.

“We also have a common word for right: karapatan. The root word of karapatan—dapat—has a meaning very close to tarong—fitting, correct, appropriate. Our language, therefore, tells us that for us Filipinos the concepts of justice and right are intimately related.

“But what word do we use for ‘law’? We use batas, which means command—very different in meaning and origin from katarungan.

“Our language, then, makes a clear distinction between justice and law; and recognizes that what is legal may not always be just.”

Fundamental fairness. “How about the word right? The Spanish, Italian, French, and German languages use right to signify both the word ‘right’ and the word ‘law.’ The ambiguity in the use of this word could mean that (1) the law must respect right; (2) what is law is right; or that (3) law and right should be inseparable. This ambiguity, however, is absent from our language.

“On the other hand, when we speak of power and authority, we use the word kapangyarihan, which could mean that (1) power confers authority; (2) authority confers power; or that (3) power should be divorced from authority.

“Lately, however, we tend to use poder or lakas for naked power, and kapangyarihan for authority. A sign, perhaps, that as a people we are beginning to see the difference between naked power and legitimate authority.

“What about ‘right’ and ‘privilege’? We use a native word—karapatan—for right; but for privilege we use a Spanish derivative, pribelehiyo. From this, as Ka Pepe pointed out, we can conclude that the fundamental element in the Filipino concept of justice is fairness; and that privilege and naked power—two of the worst enemies of fairness—are alien to the Filipino mind.

“In summary, our language establishes that there is a Filipino concept of justice; that it is a highly moral concept, intimately related to the concept of right; that it is similar to, but broader than, Western concepts of justice, for it embraces the concept of equity; that it is a discriminating concept, which distinguishes between justice and right, on the one hand, and law and argument, on the other; that its fundamental element is fairness; and that it eschews privilege and naked power.

“Ka Pepe likened our language to the ‘bones’ of the concept of justice. [And] our history… its ‘flesh’: To discern the Filipino vision… that puts flesh on the bones of the concept of justice our language expresses, we need to turn to the history of our people. That history may be described as a continuous and continuing struggle to create a just society.

“Our history chronicles the sacrifices and sufferings of our people under despotic governments, both foreign and domestic. Despite the overwhelming odds, we battled the Spanish, American, and Japanese invading forces. In more recent times, we fought hard to dismantle the Marcos dictatorship, to restore democracy, and remove US military bases from our territory. Indeed, our history is a testament to our unbending and unwavering intent to regain our dignity and mold a just society.

Conclusion. “Social justice, for us Filipinos, means a coherent, intelligible system of law, made known to us, enacted by a legitimate government freely chosen by us, and enforced fairly and equitably by a courageous, honest, impartial, and competent police force, legal profession and judiciary, that FIRST, respects our rights and our freedoms both as individuals and as a people; SECOND, seeks to repair the injustices that society has inflicted on the poor…; THIRD, develops a self-directed and self-sustaining economy that distributes its benefits to meet, at first, the basic material needs of all, then to provide an improving standard of living for all…; FOURTH, changes our institutions and structures, our ways of doing things and relating to each other, so that whatever inequalities remain are not caused by those institutions or structures, unless inequality is needed temporarily to favor the least favored among us and its cost is borne by the most favored; and FIFTH, adopts means and processes that are capable of attaining these objectives.”

What does our justice system look like today? Does it reflect the Filipino concept of justice? Before I print Dean Diokno’s answer, perhaps I should first ask readers to write theirs.

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