Review of The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush by Peter Singer

Eras Journal – Lothian, K: Review of “The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush”, Peter Singer

Peter Singer, The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush,
Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2004
Isbn: 1 920885 08 0

Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and bioethicist, is a passionate believer in rational argument as a means of social reform. Beginning in the 1970s, at a time when few philosophers were applying their skills to the practical problems of the world, Singer was telling us that academic philosophy should have broader application. He began by attempting to engage us in a conversation about the ethics of civil disobedience, and by exhorting us to give more money to the world’s poor. In the ensuing years he has, among other things, tried to persuade us that nonhuman animals have interests that should be taken seriously, and has also focused our attention on the moral issues associated with abortion, euthanasia, and other bioethical issues.

This commitment to social reform is a passion that has remained remarkably resilient, for he has been applying his rigorous logic to public issues for over thirty years now. The latest offering is The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush. Few readers of this book will find any surprises within its pages, but Singer’s intention was not to produce a volume of shocking revelations. Instead, his interest was captured by Bush’s predilection for moral language. No other president in living memory, Singer argues in his introduction, has framed so many issues in moral terms and spoken so often about ‘good’ and ‘evil’. To what extent, Singer wondered, is Bush’s moral philosophy a coherent one? If we take the sincerity of Bush’s pronouncements at face value, what kind of moral worldview underpins his leadership decisions? Is it a consistent one? A defensible one?

Each chapter of this well-researched book builds towards a corpus of ethical deficiencies and contradictions that is frightening in its enormity. In the first half of the volume, titled ‘Bush’s America’, Singer introduces us to Bush’s ethical principles, and considers the way in which American domestic policy has been shaped by these. But despite Bush’s avowed commitment to freedom, opportunity, individual rights, respect for life and the eradication of poverty, Singer paints a picture of Bush as a man of inconsistencies, whose actions belie his declarations. Bush’s stated respect for human life, for instance, allied with his refusal to allocate federal funds for stem cell research that would destroy human embryos, is powerfully contrasted with his seemingly unperturbed attitude towards the death penalty and his willingness to use tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq that he knew would increase the risk of civilian deaths. Bush’s belief in justice and opportunity is considered alongside his tax policy, which, Singer argues, clearly favours the wealthy and can only serve to further entrench the deep divisions between rich and poor in America. His promotion of individual and State rights and freedoms is contrasted with the revocation of an Oregon law to allow physician-assisted suicide, with the ban on same-sex marriage and, most tellingly, with Bush’s approval of military tribunals for suspected terrorists and detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

The second part of the book, which considers Bush’s foreign policy, is framed by the following question: “How much of an obligation does a leader have to ensure that his nation acts as a good global citizen, rather than as a country concerned only to protect its own interests?” (p.136). Bush’s answer to this question has, on the whole, been unequivocal. What comes first, according to Bush, “are the people who live in America” (p.160). Although Singer is relatively generous in his assessment of Bush’s commitment to foreign aid, his evaluation of the president’s response to other foreign policy decisions such as global warming, free trade and the International Criminal Court is damning. Over several chapters, by appealing to the authority of the United Nations and by utilising ‘just war’ theory, Singer also provides a severe indictment of Bush’s support for the right to strike other nations pre-emptively, and his decision to wage war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

That Bush’s ethical sensibility is found wanting on so many fronts is not an unexpected verdict. In the final chapter, Singer attempts to make sense of it all. After examining Bush’s statements against several ethical theories, he concludes that Bush’s morality is too befuddled to fit any coherent ethical framework. His moral understanding is a simplistic – even Manicheistic – one, Singer argues. It is an understanding that tends to frame ethical problems in terms of a grand narrative of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Just as problematically, the decision-making that flows from this conception of the world has tended to be a reaction to ‘gut instinct’, or intuition. Singer concedes that most of us tend to rely on our moral intuition at least some of the time. But for the president of the United States, Singer argues, called upon to consider complex ethical issues on a daily basis, such a moral framework is simply insufficient.

Understanding another person’s subjectivity is never an easy task, and as somebody who is currently engaged in writing a biography of the author of this book, I can attest to that. In the end, however, the discussion in this final chapter around whether Bush is sincere or insincere, merely opportunistic or the pawn in a much larger conspiracy, is a little thin. This is disappointing, because the themes of this final chapter might have offered a useful lens through which to view American ethical views more generally. Indeed, Singer’s introduction to this book tells us that it might be read not only as a commentary on George W. Bush, but as “an outsider’s look at a major strand of American thinking – the way of thinking that currently guides the policies of the world’s dominant nation” (p.6). Although this particularly American moral outlook is noted several times throughout the book, there is little sustained discussion of the topic. As an historian, I found this fairly sketchy analysis of George Bush as a
person with social and historical dimensions to be the most important omission of an otherwise compelling book. If we are to fully understand the morality of George W. Bush, we need also to understand what drives it.

Kathy Lothian
School of Historical Studies, Monash University