Brazil: 40 day-to-day questions about what is right or wrong


By Jerônimo Teixeira, Veja (edition no. 1949)

Photo montage by Pedro Rubens and illustration by Hector Gomez

When the ghost of the king appears, in the first act of Hamlet, the character Marcelo, an ordinary citizen, observes: "There is something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark". Is the reasoning embedded in the phrase, one of the most famous in William Shakespeare's theater, recurrent in human history? and Brazil may be experiencing a similar moment now. The king is a symbol. If he became a lost soul, it is a sign that the whole country is sick. Immersed in a political crisis that has been going on for eleven months, and is still far from being exhausted, Brazil begins to flirt dangerously with what could be called the “Marcelo syndrome”: the thesis that government and society are equally corrupt and coincide in moral disorientation. If all the lies and scandals surrounding the monthly allowance were not enough, other news reinforces the impression that the pillars of ethics have collapsed at the institutional level: a general interrupts the take-off of an airplane and takes two passengers off the flight to board his wife; the Army negotiates with traffickers to recover stolen weapons; judges defend tooth and nail the practice of nepotism and strike to preserve disproportionate economic advantages….

Does this moral laxity in the upper layers of the country's political hierarchy spread across the social fabric? Do daily slips, on the other hand, prevent the rulings of the rulers from being seen in their fullness? These are interesting questions for whose study Brazil is now an almost perfect laboratory. There are no easy answers. Intellectuals tend to believe in the natural purity of the people and in the mandatory corruption of any ruler or member of a country's elite. Is that so? “The problem is with us. We as a people. Us as the raw material of a country, ”recently wrote the chronicler João Ubaldo Ribeiro on the topic of corruption. Seeing defects in the people is not the rule. João Ubaldo is an exception. There is no doubt that the ethics of the governors are interrelated in some way with the ethics of the citizens. This relationship is very complex.

Read also: 90% of young people consider Brazilian society to be unethical or not, says Datafolha, in a study for ETCO


Beto Barata / AE
Beto Barata / AE
Last week, after her PT colleague João Magno escaped cassation, Congresswoman Angela Guadagnin rehearsed a commemorative dance on the floor of the Chamber. Magno received more than 400 000 reais from the valerioduto. The scandal that was his acquittal should have been received in silence, but Angela decided to celebrate. It was a grotesque portrait of cynicism in politics

Is it possible that a people endowed with rigid standards of moral conduct, with a strong religious base and a worldwide predominance in philosophy and classical music, would complicate with a government of mad murderers? Nazi Germany is very recent proof that the answer to the question above is, terrifyingly, yes. On the other hand, it is possible that a people, having spent 75 years under a regime of quasi-slavery, subjected to a foreign power and a discouraging and cruel ideology, could in a few years return to the path of prosperity, social and technological progress ? The answer here is also yes. The example is the countries of Eastern Europe, the Soviet satellites that, once free from repression, have become progressive nations with enormous economic and social advancement. What is the common point between the two extreme examples? In both cases, the turns, for better or worse, were initially made by half a dozen titanically capable leaders. The peoples followed the orders from above. What does that mean? Does it mean that for good or for evil the people, in their collective condition, can be taken to one side or the other by their leaders? regardless of the individual beliefs of each person. It also means that the example from above is crucial. If he is good, he encourages good individual behavior. If the examples are bad, the more people will feel free to resort to “little ways” and “take advantage”.

Last week, Ibope released the results of a study entitled “Corruption in politics: victim or accomplice voter?”. Two thousand people were interviewed throughout the month of January, and the conclusions are uncomfortable. Almost 90% of respondents stated that Brazilian politicians act only for their own benefit, and 82% say that the Brazilian political class in general is corrupt. For 95% of respondents, overpricing public works or diverting government resources for their own purposes are unacceptable practices, and 89% consider slush funds to be equally inadmissible. Things get mixed up in the second part of the survey. In an abstract way, Brazilians think they are better than the politicians who represent them: 64% believe that the people, in general, are honest. At the same time, 75% of those interviewed admitted that, if elected to public office, they could “fall into the temptation” of getting rich. And 98% said people they were close to had done at least one wrongful act — such as paying a bribe to avoid a fine, producing false medical certificates or consuming pirated products. The survey results reveal a dichotomy: the population strongly repudiates corruption, but commits and tolerates dishonesty.

Such findings are not exactly new. Brazilian social sciences have a long tradition of analyzing this paradox. In the classic Raízes do Brasil, 1936, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda used the expression “cordial man” to designate the Brazilian's tendency to always be guided by family and affective principles, even when dealing with issues that should require a distant and abstract posture. Anthropologist Roberto DaMatta takes up and updates this reasoning when speaking of an “ethics of the house”, which puts private interests before everything else and only recognizes rights to those who are relatives, friends or companions. The most obvious implication of this tendency to treat the state as if it were an extension of the home itself is nepotism. But, to some extent, corruption is also determined by it. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in an ironic essay about his countrymen, left a note that could be valid for Brazil: “The State is impersonal; the Argentine only conceives of a personal relationship. That is why, for him, stealing public money is not a crime ”.

The Ibope research and arguments of this kind seem to support those who think that the public and the private are in an inextricably unhealthy relationship in Brazil. The antidote to pessimism is the country's recent history of institutional achievements. Contrary to what Sérgio Buarque de Holanda said in one of the most bitter passages of Raízes do Brasil, democracy is no longer a mere “misunderstanding” in the country. Even the traditions of the cordial man are gradually being defeated - the end of nepotism in the Judiciary is a good example of this. In a democracy, moreover, the idea that society and government are the same thing does not hold. It belongs to other realities.

What is most shocking about current government transgressions is the fact that they are an organized attack on public ethics. “The party that promised to be republican and announced a transparent government reiterates the old customs of the colonels. It is a scandal ”, says philosopher Roberto Romano, from Unicamp. In the infamous Paris interview, President Lula tried to excuse cashier two on the grounds that this alternative accounting is an old practice in Brazil. Faced with the facts that are overthrowing his closest helpers, he maintains the discourse that he never knew about corruption. The deputies caught by hand in the valerioduto defend themselves with the theory that “they only took the money to pay campaign debts”, as if the purpose given to illicit resources somehow made them less dirty. And the argument is accepted in Congress. The cynicism in the face of political upheavals gained its exemplary image last week, with the grotesque little dance with which deputy Angela Guadagnin celebrated the non-annulment of her monthly colleague João Magno.

Is there no argument that allows excusing the misdemeanors that Brazilians commit on a daily basis? let alone that the bad example comes from above. Like PT petitions, tax evasion, cheating and even those gestures that are not against the law, but break civility, are a backwardness for the country. But to imagine that at some future point the ethical dilemmas will disappear is unrealistic. Morality conflicts are one of the major themes of contemporary thought. Its most dramatic expression is in the lines of Pope Benedict XVI. In his career as a theologian, did he always attack relativism? the theory that there are no absolute ethical criteria. "We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism, which makes each individual's ego and desires the measure of all things," he said shortly before being elected successor to John Paul II. Benedict XVI would like to restore divine law as a parameter of justice, but the alternatives to religious doctrine are numerous in today's world.

Amidst the multitude of theories, making ethical choices is still problematic. The American newspaper The New York Times created a weekly section, half serious, half humorous, dedicated to discussing them. “If everyone consulted the newspaper before committing a misdeed, the world would be a lot better”, jokes Randy Cohen, head of the column The Ethicist. In everyday ethics, arriving at right or wrong depends on continuous reflection. Some issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and cloning, are real battlegrounds. But agreement around many values ​​also grows. Discrimination on the basis of sex or race, for example, is now universally condemned—and it was not so less than a century ago. There is no reason to believe that the end of the world is in sight.

Next, VEJA proposes forty ethical questions of everyday life and ventures to give the answers. Read them as our opinion, based on common sense and the guidance of philosophers and ethics professors. Have a good time.

Everyday ethics

Every day, on the news, reports of corruption and criminal acts by politicians and government officials are read. Does this situation make excuses for small transgressions that citizens commit on a daily basis?
No way. It is execrable that public figures or elected by popular vote are not even the shadow of the ethical and moral example that they are expected to be. The fact that there are criminals or suspects at the top of the political hierarchy only increases the personal responsibility of good citizens.

Is asking your grandfather or a pregnant friend to buy tickets in the preferred queue pass the others over?
Yes. The grandfather or the pregnant friend, at your request, will be increasing the number of people in a queue that would otherwise be smaller.

Does paying someone to stand in line at your place or asking a friend for this favor harm others?
It doesn't hurt. What counts in a queue is the number of people in it. The exchange of one person for another does not alter the final result of the discomfort.

Consuming products imported from countries that have proven to use slave labor is equivalent to approving this practice?
Worse than that. It is equivalent to financing this practice. Is avoiding these products the right thing to do? even if that doesn't serve to economically punish the exploiter?, because other people will continue to buy them.

A professional driver who needs a driver's license to survive and feed his wife and children receives a fine that entails the loss of the right to drive. Is it ethical for him to ask his wife to take responsibility for the fine?
Here is a dilemma. But the answer is no. The accumulation of fines, assuming the traffic cops acted correctly, shows that he is not a responsible driver. Therefore, from the point of view of the common good, the right thing is to prevent him from driving. Ideally, in these cases, the State should have mechanisms to support the driver's family and offer a re-education course for traffic within a maximum period of one week after the loss of driving license.

A record company announces that it has no plans to release a certain DVD in Brazil. That same DVD is sold in pirated copies. If so, is it ethical to go to the black market?
It is almost irresistible, but the answer is no. Buying the DVD in question encourages piracy, an activity that concentrates income in the hands of criminals, destroys formal jobs and impoverishes honest people.

Brazilians work four months a year to pay taxes that will be wasted by incompetent managers or end up, in part, in the pocket of corrupt people. Therefore, getting a discount at the doctor's office by accepting the proposal to pay “without receipt” is not only a personal advantage, but also revenge against the government. Right?
It is certainly both. But it is also a clear attack on ethics. Corruption cannot be fought with corruption. The way to protest against over-spending governments and dishonest politicians is at the polls. It may take time and be inefficient, but this is how a country is built.

But the amount paid in taxes is not returned in the form of benefits. Isn't it really legitimate to look for shortcuts to reduce the personal tax burden?
No, because the State will stubbornly seek the amount it needs to pay its debt service and finance its operation. Therefore, those who pay less will burden those who pay correctly. It will penalize the victim and not the culprit, the state. Looking for legal shortcuts to decrease the amount of tax payable is correct.

Registering a property for a lower price to escape taxes is common practice in Brazil. Is that acceptable?
The thing is to pay taxes for the exact amount of the transaction. Protest at the polls by choosing candidates with viable plans to lower taxes. Organize marches against high taxes, join groups that already protest…

Advancing the red light at night, when there is almost no movement, increases security against burglaries. This is correct?
Yes. As Ubirajara Calmon Carvalho, professor of philosophy at the University of Brasília, recalls, “the rules were made for humans, and not the other way around”. In this specific case, it is up to the driver to proceed in the safest way for him and for others.

Is it okay to move on the strip even when there are no pedestrians passing by?
Not during the day. At dawn, slow down, watch carefully and cross.

Using the company phone for private long-distance calls is a way to save money. But is that acceptable?
This is theft. It is equivalent to opening the company's safe and reaching into a wad of cash. Low wages, employers' stinginess or poor working conditions do not justify these small expedients.

It is better to have jugglers, fire swallowers and candy vendors at intersections in big cities than to have them robbing, right?
No. The two things are not mutually exclusive. What is most useful for society is that boys and girls are in school studying, being fed and guided. But individual charity must not be regulated by collective ethics. It belongs to that inner region where personal conviction is sent.

Whoever consumes drugs is occasionally helping organized crime and unwittingly financing robberies, kidnappings and massacres?
Yes. Without consumer money, drug trafficking would disappear. "Occasionally" does not make consumption more acceptable. It is the same as accepting that a person commits a maximum of two or three murders a year.

“I got beaten up by my parents and I became a psychologically normal adult, a good husband and a correct professional. That tells me everything I need to know about spanking my own kids. ” Right?
No. Physical punishments do not educate.

A reckless friend, with poor academic performance and unruly life, told everyone that he had gotten a job exaggerating his qualities in the curriculum vitae. Since he started working, he straightened up and today he asks everyone not to tell his boss about the initial "slip" of his career. Is it okay to help your friend hide the scam?
No, but if the guy straightened up, never mind.

When in doubt about who stole a test, the teacher decides to punish the whole class equally. For most, punishment will have superficial effects. For two poor students, however, it will mean the loss of the scholarship and the expulsion from school. Should the teacher overlook the collective error to save the two poor students?
Yes. It is unfair to allow the same error or suspicion to produce such disparate punishments, violently hitting some, while others get away with just one admonition.