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Saturday, May 15th, 2004


The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush

by Peter Singer

A Knotted Mess

A review by C. P. Farley

One of my first impressions of George Bush was early in the 2000 campaign. A reporter asked him a question about the death penalty, and he responded: "I support the death penalty because I believe it saves lives." For me, this has always encapsulated George Bush. The statement reveals more than his hilariously clumsy verbal skills, it also reveals a good deal about his thinking. In particular, that word "belief."

Even conservative Bill O'Reilly concedes that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the threat of capital punishment does precisely nothing to prevent violent crime. In fact, oddly enough, it seems to encourage it. But as Bob Woodward and many others — including the president — have said, George Bush is a "gut" player. He makes decisions based on "instinct." Bush didn't say, I support the death penalty because the evidence suggests that, overall, it saves lives. He supports it because he "believes" (i.e. his gut tells him) it saves lives, and, evidence schmevidence, that's all he needs to know.

Bush has not hesitated to act on his belief. As governor of Texas, he presided over more state executions than any other president in modern history. This position seems odd, given that elsewhere he has said that he believes "human life is a sacred gift from our Creator" and feels it is his duty to "foster and encourage respect for life." He is therefore strongly opposed to abortion, and has spent agonizing hours worrying over whether a five day old cluster of cells is a human life or not and, therefore, sacred.

When asked about this seeming paradox, Bush explains, "The difference [is] between innocence and guilt." In other words, it is immoral to kill an unborn fetus because it is innocent and moral to kill a criminal because they are guilty. Then what about the thousands of innocent civilians — many times more than were killed on 9/11 — that have been killed as a result of Bush's decisions as Commander-in-Chief? Bush's statements about this issue suggest that he is more concerned about "collateral damage" as a political issue than an ethical one.

If this line of reasoning suggests to you that George W. Bush does not have a coherent or defensible ethical philosophy, then Peter Singer's The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush is the book for you. Despite the fact that Bush employs the language of morality, of Right and Wrong, perhaps more often than any other president in American history, Singer demonstrates, quite powerfully, that on a host of ethical issues — equity, individual rights, honesty, the rights and responsibilities of power, etc. — Bush's actions don't line up with his statements, which don't line up with each other. After reading this book, it's hard not to conclude that Bush's moral instincts are as tangled as his syntax. Considering that he is the most powerful person in the world, this is, to say the least, alarming.

Still, my reaction was, Well, duh, and that, I think is the book's main weakness. That our president is a sloppy, self-serving moralist will fail to surprise many readers. But, as Singer points out, "Bush represents a distinctively American moral outlook....Tens of millions of Americans believe that he is sincere, and share the views that he puts forward on a wide range of moral issues." Will these Americans read this book? Doubtful. And if they did, would they find Singer's logic convincing? Again, doubtful.

Despite the fact that our political system grew out of one of the great intellectual flowerings in history, there is also in American culture an undeniable and deeply-rooted distrust of complex thinking (not to mention that taste for violence we like to hide from ourselves). Singer has ably demonstrated that these tendencies are currently holding the reins in American politics. But those who will agree with him already know this. What we don't know — what I would like to understand — is why.

Why at this particular moment in history are Americans so hungry for a leader who reduces the complexity of the world to a childishly simple, and logically incoherent, tableaux of black and white? Why do we tolerate a president who tells us that we are "the kindest nation on Earth," and "the greatest force for good in world history," then systematically — and blithely — destroys our hard-won international reputation? And where did that peculiarly American fetish for "innocence" come from, an idea that is not part of the Christian tradition? And how is this idea related to our seemingly endless desire for retribution?

I suppose these questions are unfair. Singer is an ethical philosopher, not a historian or a sociologist. And there's no doubt that The President of Good and Evil is a very useful and necessary book. Still, for this reader, it wasn't very interesting.

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