Prevention’s better than cure, morality the best medicine

By Dang Hung Vo   May 9, 2019 | 12:26 am PT
Laws and regulations will never be enough to build a perfect society. We need an ingrained moral framework.
Dang Hung Vo

Dang Hung Vo

If you are following the news, you would know of at least two cases of sexual harassment being discussed in news outlets and on social media -  teachers touching primary school students inappropriately and an ex-prosecutor forcibly hugging and kissing a little girl in an elevator.

You should also know that these cases are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A 2014 survey of 2,000 women by the NGO ActionAid said 87 percent of women and girls experienced sexual harassment in public in Vietnam, with actual figures likely to be even higher as many are too scared to report such abuses. Even when some cases do result in legal action, these are stuck in limbo and left to gather dust. Hardly something that would deter unwanted behavior.

Citizens and policymakers have long called for changes to Vietnam’s legal system that would make it clearer and easier to enforce. It is true that several of our legal definitions are currently obscure, and do little to protect the rights of our people.

However, we should consider this, too. Amending the law might not be enough on its own.

For long, Vietnamese society has been governed by specific sets of moral values, most prominently those of Confucianism. Basically, Confucianism tells people to respect their parents, their elders, their kings, to uphold social orders, and in general, ‘be good’. This held good until Vietnam gained its independence in 1945, when feudalism was abolished and the sets of moral values associated with the old era began to wane.

Today, it appears as though there is no moral framework to support and guide Vietnamese society towards peace and goodwill. Nowadays, people simply ask, "is this legal?" to determine whether something’s right or wrong.

I don’t think that’s enough.

While it is indisputable that the existence of a legal system has changed our society for the better, it’s merely one part of the equation. Punishing criminals for their wrongdoing is good, but there will always be more of them, anyway, as history shows us.

Like cutting weeds without plucking their roots, our law is only useful for punishing crimes after they are committed. What if we could prevent them from happening in the first place? Or, what should we do to prevent them in the first place?

That’s where a set of moral values comes in. Values that we grow up with, imbibe from the very day we come into this world.

I’m not saying that teaching moral values is panacea for all the evil in this world. But look at history. Europe chose the ancient Roman legal system as the foundation to govern its people, while East Asia picked Confucianism. Then the continents learned from each other. Europeans realized an ideal world needs the existence of a moral framework, while their East Asians recognized the need for a legal framework to enforce the moral one.

The key is to realize that we need both, that one would not work effectively without the other. A moral framework would serve to foster the good in people, while a legal system would discourage them from succumbing to evil. That’s the delicate balance we should seek to achieve.

In recent years, Vietnam has been realizing the need for a moral framework, and has moved to reintroduce it into society in the form of codes of conduct. The health ministry did so in 2014, the Hanoi administration in 2017 and the education ministry in 2019.

While it is a good sign that our officials are willing to look at problems from different angles, some people have argued that these codes of conduct are nothing more than suggestions and recommendations, without the power of laws and rules. But that’s not how we should approach this topic. A moral framework needs to be born out of people’s will that they willingly create and willingly follow. Such a framework also needs to be introduced early on. You can’t bend an old tree, after all.

Vietnamese students attend the annual new school year ceremony at a secondary school in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 5, 2018. The building of moral values need to start at young ages. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Vietnamese students attend the annual new school year ceremony at a secondary school in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 5, 2018. The building of moral values need to start at young ages. Photo by Reuters/Kham

I once participated in a conference by the World Bank on urban development, in which one report was about lending money to poor people to fix their homes. I asked the report’s authors how they would get borrowers to repay their debts on time.

The answer was quick in coming: "We instruct them on how to borrow money, and also tell them beforehand that if the debts are not paid on time, their names would be published in the local bulletin."

This is an example of a moral framework being applied. Not sending people to jail, but having a system where they act responsibly out of community or peer pressure, and their own conscience.

If we have an effective moral framework, maybe we won’t need laws and regulations to guide us.

*Dang Hung Vo is a former vice minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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