Negotiated Harms in Moralized Policies: The Case of Duterte’s War on Drugs


  • Danielle P. Ochoa
  • Michelle G. Ong


Viewing a policy as harmful can lead to its moral condemnation. However, this harmfulness can be constructed and negotiated to lead to different moral positions by building upon available, accessible, and relevant discourses. This study examined how individuals constructed and negotiated harm in moral reasoning about a contentious policy, Philippine President Duterte’s war on drugs, locally known as tokhang. We conducted thematic analysis with attention to discourse to analyze interviews with 12 Filipino young adults, using the Theory of Dyadic Morality as a starting point to make sense of constructions of harm. Reasoning about tokhang showed different constructions of intentional agents and vulnerable victims serving as the basis for moral positions. Moral condemnation of the war on drugs emphasized the vulnerability of its victims and the intentionality of the government and police as agents. On the other hand, moral justification of the policy constructed drug war victims as agentic and guilty of crimes, the police as potentially vulnerable victims acting according to protocol to defend themselves, and rogue agents acting independently of the policy. Ambiguous positions were also made possible when the causality of harm is unclear. These constructions and negotiations were built upon broader discourses deployed in the sociopolitical context of urban young adults, with individual contexts and characteristics contributing to variations in the accessibility and relevance of certain discourses and resulting moral positions.