Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When a Gift is Not a Gift

Is it ethical to accept any form of gifts from politicians? Or to give cash gift to barrio officials and councilors if you are an incumbent candidate for any election? With or without elections, both sides of the two camps of our local political bigwigs give something to their supporters and voters in general whether in the form of projects and services, and yes,.. including cash, especially during holiday season. Speaking of cash gifts, I remember the most scandalous cash-giving incident happened in Macañan in October 2007 that was featured in this news item.

In a Facebook discussion thread just appeared in my wall, it was alleged that sometime last week, Governor Josephine Y. Ramirez-Sato and Mayor Romulo M. Festin distributed cash gifts to certain barangay officials amounting to P 1,000 to P 3,000 each through a meeting reportedly brokered,- err,.. called by Association of Barangay Councils (ABC) of San Jose president Marjorie Sales of Mangarin. I am not aware of the meeting but I have a feeling it happened. According to the initial thread post, the cash-giving cum meeting was held in Festin’s residence (or is it rest house?) in Doña Consuelo Subdivision of said municipality.

But when a gift is not a gift? Armed with the lessons I’ve learned in my Ethics class in college, here is my answer to that hard question : One issue to consider when assessing whether offering or accepting a gift is inappropriate is whether the relationship will be altered, or if there is an expectation that it will be INFLUENCED in some way. For example, when we are expecting favors (in this case, votes) in return, this is a bribe NOT a gift.

But what is “Ethics”? It can be summed up with these words : "Ethics is concerned with how people ought to act and how they ought to be in relationship with others. Ethics does not just, describe how things are, but rather is concerned with establishing norms or standards for how human life and conduct should be." My former professor at Divine Word College of San Jose (DWCSJ) told us that ethics are a set of principles of right conduct. But how can one distinguish clearly what is right from what is wrong? And it becomes more complicated when these two areas (what is right and what is wrong) overlap so that a gray area develops.

Gifts and bribes provide a good example of this case. Take for example our case at hand, the alleged cash-giving incident in Doña Consuelo. Was it a gift or a bribe? Gifts and bribes are distinctly separate. Gifts are ethical while bribes are unethical and often are illegal. However, in some cultures such as the Oriental culture in general and the Philippine culture in particular, the concepts of gifts and bribes are not distinctly separate. There are overlapping areas between offering gifts and offering bribes. Gift-giving behavior can be extended into the area of giving bribes, so that the concepts overlap. When this occurs, the behavior is ethical and unethical at the same time. But this is not limited only to politicians and their constituents but also to other “relationships” like between a politician and a media personality, etc.

Applying a code of ethics to behavior becomes very complicated because a gray area exists between ethical actions and unethical actions. As discussed before, offering a gift is an ethical (right) behavior and offering a bribe is an unethical (wrong) behavior. But in the gray area where offering a gift extends into the area of offering a bribe, it is very hard to interpret whether the behavior is right or wrong.

We are not expecting that government regulations and laws alone can solve the prevailing problem of corruption and bribery here in Occidental Mindoro or elsewhere in the Philippines. There is a dire need for a group of citizens to differentiate between the overlapping area of offering gifts and offering bribes so that we, Filipinos, are able to distinguish between gifts and bribes. This is not an easy task because gifts and bribes have traditionally overlapped in our culture so that the distinction between ethical and unethical behaviors is not clearly defined and practiced. We, the citizens, especially the media, our moral guardians and the academe, but certainly not the politicians, are expected to clarify and redefine these gray areas in order for us to develop as a nation which was suffered from corruption, from the overlapping of offering gifts and offering bribes.

In the said Facebook thread I also posted what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (No. 198) says on the matter : “The more people and social groups strive to resolve social problems according to the truth, the more they distance themselves from abuses and act in accordance with the objective demands of truth…The unscrupulous use of money raises ever more pressing questions, which necessarily call for greater transparency and honesty in personal and social activity.”

Such “sumbong” utilizing the internet needs discernment and should be properly analyzed or else it would only be used as propaganda tool by one political group against their opponents and sow divisiveness, instead of unity among common voters and majority of the Mindoreños…

(Photo from


  1. This is not settled just by ethics. For gift is a gift, or a gift becomes a bribe, depending on two other accounts: one is cultural (for instance, in Western culture, the delineation is very clear); the other reason is situational (i.e., election or campaign period).

  2. @Anonymous : I agree and you just said something I was not able to emphasize. Thank you for the comment and God bless...