The President of Good and Evil

Beyond the President of Good and Evil
March 14, 2004

“The President of Good and Evil” is a very strange new book by acclaimed philosopher Peter Singer. Singer is a native of Australia who currently teaches at Princeton and lives in New York, and whose many books have been widely influential, particularly in the area of animal rights. Singer is famous for criticizing the individual behavior of most of us in wealthy countries as falling far short of an ethical level of sacrifice on behalf of those people with whom we share the planet who are suffering severely, albeit often at a great distance from us.

I don’t know what I expected from a book by Singer with a photo of George W. Bush on the cover. I guess I expected and hoped for a yet stronger, if perhaps less humorous, condemnation of Bush than those offered by several recent best-sellers.

In a way I got what I wanted. The book does amount to a condemnation of Bush’s (un)ethical behavior, and the facts and arguments produced are extremely strong, strengthened by the perspective of someone who can see the United States from both outside and in. But exactly what the condemnation amounts to is rendered ambiguous by the strange and overly simplistic concluding chapter. And the strength of the arguments throughout is tempered by Singer’s method of repeatedly giving Bush the benefit of the doubt and of holding him at most to minimal widely accepted moral standards.

Because this book bends over backwards to be fair to Bush, it may make a good present of persuasion. Giving a copy to a Republican friend might create a good deal of cognitive dissonance. Bush comes off as a serious threat to the planet, and not the slightest exaggeration is used to make this case.

Ultimately, however, the book holds Bush to standards he would find alien, and charges him with inconsistency where he would no doubt insist there is none. Not everyone will be converted, not withstanding Singer’s references early and late in the book to rational argument and universal standards.

The first 200 of the 225 pages take us on a tour of Bush’s ethical pronouncements and behavior, in search of consistency or meaning. This is extremely well done, and each section constitutes a perfect primer on what is wrong with this president and why we need to vote him out. Topics include stem cell research, civil liberties, “faith-based” programs, torture, international cooperation on the environment and on criminal justice, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq, among others.

Predictably, the contradictions are legion and the findings of hypocrisy plentiful. At times, I wish Singer had focused less on Bush’s hypocrisy than on the damage done by his behavior. We all know, for example, that Bush favors state power when it suits him and federal power when it doesn’t, but what seems more important is that he almost always uses federal power in the wrong cases and in destructive ways while failing to use it whenever he actually ought to. We all know that Bush is not a consistent free trader; the case that needs to be made more strongly is that he shouldn’t be one at all.

The one instance in which Singer goes beyond commonly accepted standards to critique an ethical problem in Bush’s behavior that most Americans would let pass comes when he suggests that Bush’s religious habits of thought constitute a handicap for someone in a position requiring a questioning and discerning mind. Singer suggests that someone who bases his beliefs on faith may not be ideally qualified for a position of power.

Of course every other American president ever elected has been a theist, or at least a deist, or at least has professed to be. But Bush is especially clear about connecting his religion to his decision-making process. I find it credible that Bush’s habits of faith deserve the credit Greg Thielmann, a proliferation expert who worked for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, gives them when he says, “This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: ‘We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers.'”

While our best immediate hope in this regard in the United States may lie in electing a religious president who promotes the separation of church and state, the rest of the world provides reason to hope for more in the future. As Singer writes, “Surprising as it may seem to many Americans, other liberal democracies often elect leaders who are open about not being religious and not attending church or any other form of worship. When taking the oath of office, the German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder refused to say the customary words ‘so help me God.’ This did not prevent him from being reelected.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the first 200 pages of Singer’s book, although I longed for some development of what Singer thinks Bush’s intentions actually are and whether he thinks Bush is a habitual liar as well as a failed utilitarian. The last 25 pages provided a disappointing analysis.

Singer shows in this final chapter that Bush is not consistently basing his decisions on concern for individual rights or on utilitarian calculations or on Christianity. He then suggests, in what seems to me a major cop-out, that Bush uses an “intuitive ethic” and “follows his instincts.” But this tells us nothing about where those “instincts” came from or what they look like or which are stronger than others. It gives us no indication of when Bush is telling us his honest motivations and when he is hiding them. Nor does it explain patterns in Bush’s behavior, such as his almost consistent favoritism toward the extremely wealthy and those who have given him money.

But Singer isn’t through. He goes on to argue that Bush strikes people who meet him as honest and good, and that Bush must either be a tremendous actor when he lies or (what Singer finds more probable) he must be the ignorant puppet of right-wing conspirators. Singer argues that when Bush, for example, claims that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let inspectors into Iraq it demonstrates that Bush “can hardly have had a firm grasp on the situation that he was supposedly directing.” Singer (mustering all the nuance of Bush’s “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”) writes on the final page of the book: “When Bush speaks about ethics, he is either sincere or he is insincere.”

But it’s just not that simple. When Bush invents a fiction about Hussein not letting inspectors in, he knows that he and a servile corporate media have the power to rewrite history. At the same time, to some limited extent, he undoubtedly believes what he is saying. He is coached by his intellectual superiors, and he takes his statements seriously, but at the same time he knows which topics to avoid, when to change the conversation, and how to hedge on the hard points. He does occasional interviews, after all. He doesn’t just read speeches. People (including Bush) are far, far more complex than Singer gives them credit for.

The simple-minded conclusion to this book is especially surprising given Singer’s critique of religion in the same book. Singer understands that Bush is a sincere Christian, and even faults him for it. Singer also understands that Bush is not consistently a Christian. Yet, Singer does not piece together the fact that Bush’s beliefs carry varying DEGREES of sincerity.

When people struggle with trying to “have faith,” they are choosing, as Blaise Pascal did openly, to believe something. And this phenomenon is not unique to religion. We choose to believe what we want to believe quite often and often fairly consciously. Some are able to persuade themselves of their belief in paradise to the extent that they will fly airplanes into buildings. Others are able, with a degree of honesty, to say they believe in Heaven, while still beign terrified of death. There is no black and white here. We cannot say that Bush is either sincere or insincere, either a brilliantly handled moron or an acting genius.

Bush is a liar who to various degrees has convinced himself of his various lies. This means that he is a human being who can be held responsible for his actions and who could conceivably be persuaded to change his ways. He is not purely a puppet whose imperialistic oil baron handlers could be seamlessly replaced by environmentally sensitive socialist handlers. Nor does he quite realize the implications of everything he says – including the ethical incoherence of his positions, something that Singer’s book would reveal to him – whether or not he’d need to get someone to read it to him aloud.

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