What’s the Deal with Delicadeza?

11:37 am PHT

What is delicadeza? If you’re a Filipino holding a position of trust, power or responsibility, you should already know the answer. But otherwise, let me remind you. The term delicadeza is one of those Spanish loan words that has entered the Filipino vocabulary with a very specialized sense of meaning. In its original Spanish definition, it literally means gentleness, softness, delicacy (as in being delicate, not exotic food), and tactfulness. But in the Filipino culture, the term delicadeza means something else very specific and has no direct English translation; the closest would probably be “sense of propriety”. Essentially, it is the virtue of knowing and acting on what is proper when you are in a position of authority and trust, such as in public service.

There are two general situations where delicadeza is often invoked. The first situation is having the grace to give up one’s position of authority when becoming involved in a matter of impropriety. This is often phrased as “resigning out of delicadeza”. (An example is Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.) The second situation is inhibiting oneself from positions, roles, or situations involving conflict of interest.

For the rest of this post, I will talk about applying delicadeza in the second situation, i.e., delicadeza as it applies to conflicts of interest. There are plenty of situations wherein we apply delicadeza by inhibiting ourselves in a process where we are faced with a conflict of interest. This is to avoid our personal biases that may taint our objectivity in the process—we might possibly not give our best output in that process or become unfair because something competes within us. And even if we are capable of being objective despite our conflicts, inhibition is often a good course of action in order to avoid the perception of possibly not being objective, the appearance of which may erode our position of authority, decrease our credibility, and taint our integrity.

It is delicadeza why we see judges inhibit themselves from judicial cases where they are friends or enemies with either the plaintiff or defendant side of a case. It is delicadeza why we see in the mechanics of a commercial promo: “All employees of [the organizing corporation], its subsidiaries, its advertising agencies and their relatives up to second degree of consanguinity or affinity are disqualified from joining the promotion”. It is delicadeza why we ought not to receive gifts from contractors and bidders for projects we outsource. And it is delicadeza why boss-subordinate and teacher-student relationships are frowned upon.

Why a post about delicadeza?

The reason why I was compelled to write this post was because I participated in an online discussion regarding the issues raised by concerned people in a not-so-recent event. I disagreed with some of the issues pointed out and I insisted in particular that one issue of delicadeza (of the second kind) two people were harping about was not necessarily wrong or malicious. And because of my insistence, one of those two people said to me, “you are one big candidates [sic] for a corrupt government official.”

I really don’t know what I did to deserve this insult. And I got this after I tried my best to stick to the issue especially when these two people kept on saying, “it’s the issue, stupid!” and lamenting the fact that other people involved kept “[shooting] the writer not the issues.” Well, thank you. I didn’t realize that by sticking to the issue one gets ad hominem arguments in return.

So I did what any logical person would do: I backed out of the argument. I see no point in continuing a discussion with these two people—one who completely missed my points, and the other who did get my points but resorted to insulting me (despite subsequent flattery) instead of “sticking to the issue.”

I will not name these two people because it does not matter. (If you’re familiar with the issue, well and good. But if you’re not, you won’t know who they are here from me.) As they have said, personalities do not matter and so in this post I am sticking to the issue and discussing the concept of delicadeza itself.

Delicadeza is means to an end, not an end in itself

I agree that delicadeza is a good thing—it’s one thing that many in the government sector seem to lack. What I don’t agree with is blindly applying delicadeza without considering all the options and considerations surrounding a particular issue. I won’t give any sympathy to people who say, “OMG! He did not apply delicadeza! So he must be corrupt!” And I certainly dislike it when people then take to their self-proclaimed moral high ground after making such pronouncements.

The central point of my thesis is this: just because a person did not apply delicadeza in one situation does not mean that he is already in the wrong or that he is already corrupt or corruptible. Why? Because delicadeza is simply a means to an end and not an end in itself. I will now proceed to explain the reasoning behind this.

Delicadeza is a concept that evolved as a means to counteract actual and/or perceived conflicts of interest. And it does it absolutely: by inhibiting oneself from certain activities or situations, there is no longer any conflict of interest.

As I mentioned in my post’s lead, conflicts of interest may lead to the actual diminished quality of the process one is involved in. The possibility of diminished quality is the reason why some sectors, notably the financial services industry, have institutionalized delicadeza: if you have a conflict of interest, you must inhibit yourself or risk facing penalties or getting fired.

The real reason why conflicts of interest might be a bad thing is because it gives the possibility that the process won’t be fair to the stakeholders. Due to conflicts of interest, it is possible that some people will get what they don’t deserve (e.g., a judge acquitting his guilty but defendant friend) and it is possible that other people won’t get what they deserve (e.g., the plaintiff not getting justice).

But, take note that the key word in the previous paragraph is “possibility”. A conflict of interest only enables one possibility of being unfair. The actual act of being unfair is definitely wrong, but the existence of conflicts of interest is not necessarily wrong. (In fact, you can be unfair even without conflicts of interest, and you could still be fair despite having conflicts of interest.) Since conflicts of interest are not wrong per se, the act of not inhibiting oneself (i.e., not applying delicadeza) is therefore not necessarily wrong as well.

Delicadeza is simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. And there are actually a few other means at hand to mitigate conflicts of interest.

Ways of mitigating conflicts of interest

There are situations where inhibition from conflicts of interest is the only way to be fair to everyone involved. But in some other situations, inhibition is sometimes a rather drastic measure (though it is the easiest thing to do) and there are times when delicadeza won’t actually be fair to the one inhibited. As an off-the-top-of-my-head example of the latter idea, should a student refrain from enrolling in the class of a professor, recognized in the industry as being the best in his field and loved by his students for being a great teacher, just because the professor is his beloved uncle? Blind application of delicadeza implies that the professor and the student should refrain from such a situation but it’s not as clear-cut as that.

In times when delicadeza might not be appropriate or too drastic to apply in a particular situation, there are a few other means, listed below, that can be used to help reduce the negative effects of conflicts of interest.

  • Disclosure. Disclosure is probably the most popular means of mitigating conflicts of interest. By self-disclosing that you have a conflict on interest in a process you participate in, you submit yourself to the court of public opinion (or at least the stakeholders) to judge whether your actions were fair or not.

  • Transparency. This is related to disclosure in that you are revealing to the public something but instead of, or in addition to, revealing to the public your conflicts of interest, you make the whole process transparent so that the public can judge for themselves whether it was conducted fairly or not.

  • Third-party audit or oversight. In certain processes where expertise is needed such as in finances, conducting an audit by a third party or having an oversight committee would be a good, though expensive, way to mitigate the effects of conflicts of interest. In this method, you subject the process to independent expertise to provide an objective or authoritative proof that, despite your conflict of interest, the process was fair. You might say that this method is a very specialized case of transparency.

As you can see, while conflicts of interest are not wrong per se, social conventions say that conflicts of interest should be treated with caution and thus there are many means available to deal with it, delicadeza being just one of them.

With this piece, I hope to have at least opened the discussion regarding the highly-prized Filipino value of delicadeza. Some might find it shocking to question the value of delicadeza (which some seem to view as an inviolable virtue), but objectively looking at the concept should actually help us further understand it and to really value how it holds society together.

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