Monday, November 15, 2004

Book review: Singer, The President of Good and Evil (2004)

In his book The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush , Peter Singer systematically analyzes President Bush's moral system, assuming from the outset that the president adheres to a coherent moral system, and questioning (a) the strength of the system, and (b) the extent to which he succeeds in adhering to it. His sources are Bush's own words, both in public speeches and as reported in, for example, Bob Woodward's book about the lead-up to the Iraq war. He also looks at the Bush administration's policies and analyzes how consistent or inconsistent they are with his rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Singer concludes in the end that Bush is a "conspicuous failure" because his ethic is "intuitive" rather than systematic, led by his gut rather than by coherent principles. Measured in the context of utilitarian, Christian, and individual rights frameworks, his actions and statements have been wildly inconsistent. In the final chapter, Singer suggests that in terms of moral development, Bush may have reached the level of advanced conventional morality-- the level that psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg says boys generaly reach at the age of thirteen-- without continuing to the level of post-conventional morality. The post-conventional level is the level at which we understand the *reasons* behind the rules, and how to prioritize when rules are in conflict, guided by more complex principles such as the Golden Rule rather than simpler ones like the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not).

Thus, Bush and his cabinet adhere almost fanatically to superficial rules of morality without any concern for more complex judgments, which results in grave moral failures. They insist, for example, that it was "technically accurate" for Bush to say in his State of the Union address, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," because the British had, in fact, reported that-- despite the fact that the CIA had already told the British and the White House that the claim was probably not true [214-5]. So their grasp on the moral high ground rests on the "technical" truth of the statement, regardless of the fact that saying such a thing in a major national address leads the country to believe something that is false, with fatal consequences.

As for the paradox that everyone who meets Bush seems to think he's a fundamentally decent person, while his administration has been one of the most draconian and mendacious in American history, Singer offers this hypothesis/conspiracy theory. Bush is the "gentleman" pawn of his "philosopher" entourage, influential members of which were trained by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. He notes that William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and other important advisers are Straussians, though I'm not sure what that means. Wolfowitz, I know, was actually trained by Strauss as a Ph.D. student at Chicago, but I'm not sure about the others.

Strauss's theory, according to Singer, is that two versions of the truth exist: one for the masses unable to grasp higher knowledge, and one for the philosophers who have the capacity to soar to "the peaks of human excellence" [221]. An example of the former kind of truth: that God will punish evil and reward good. An example of the latter kind of truth: that no God exists, but inculcating belief in God helps maintain social order. The philosopher's role as a leader is to keep the masses in line by using the former kinds of truths, and to keep them from interfering with other philosophers' ascent to said peaks of excellence. He does this by enlisting "gentlemen," who in the words of classicist Miles Burnyeat, "come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it...Such 'gentlemen' are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy." [221-2] Recognize anyone? So Bush, in this reading, is the pawn who professes and promotes a virtue that his puppeteers actually think is meaningless. Anyhow, the Straussians in the administration were instrumental in masterminding the Iraq war, and in fact they were the main players in the Project for a New American Century.

This book will not convince many people who are not already inclined to think badly of Bush. Personally, I admire Peter Singer and I think he is terrific at taking you through moral decision-making in an analytical but accessible way. And I think he's dead on in identifying the logical inconsistencies and weak foundation of Bush's moral reasoning. But I believe that MOST people (including me) don't work from a coherent philosophical framework when they make decisions, and I think that MOST people won't, therefore, be surprised or alarmed that the president doesn't either. So ultimately I think this book, clear and engaging as it is, is hopelessly confined to a small audience of ethics wonks (if there is such a thing) and people addicted to Bush-bashing.

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