On Iraq, Afghanistan, Foreign Aid, and More
Excerpted from The President of Good and Evil, New York, 2004

George Bush's ethics

(Bush) frequently . . . defends his actions in terms of right and wrong. Yet it isn't obvious what kind of ethic the President holds. He insists that right and wrong are universal, and provides specific examples of good and evil, but offers no broad ethical principles or framework for thinking about what makes something good or evil. In several speeches there is an implicit appeal to one kind of ethic, but then other speeches or other decisions appear to be based on a different, and even contradictory, ethical stance.

The Iraq war

Bush's primary case for war with Iraq rested on the claim that the (UN) Security Council had required Saddam Hussein to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, but he had not done so. It now seems very probable that Saddam Hussein had largely, and perhaps entirely, rid himself of weapons of mass destruction. That simple fact undermines the main reason Bush offered for the war. It also raises important questions about why Bush falsely claimed to know - even insisted that there was "no doubt" - that Saddam possessed WMDs.

The Afghanistan invasion

The war on Afghanistan fails to meet the criteria for being a just war because it was not a war of last resort. Moreover, because the form that the war actually took - a war to overthrow the Taliban government - arguably went beyond what was necessary to achieve the goal of bringing those behind the outrage of September 11, 2001 to justice, and preventing further terrorism, it is not even clear that the war was fought for a just cause.

The philosophy of freedom

Bush has shown that he does not regard human rights as inviolable. He is prepared to take risks with the lives and liberties of innocent people in order to protect America from terrorism. He is, it seems, an advocate of absolute rights on some occasions, and of utilitarian arguments - of dubious quality - for overriding such rights on others. His views and actions on freedom and the limits to government lack any clear and consistent philosophical underpinning.

Foreign aid

Though the outcome is still uncertain, it is possible that by insisting that the additional aid included in the Millennium Challenge Account (Bush's 2003 foreign aid initiative) will go only to nations that govern justly, invest in their people, and allow economic freedom, Bush's initiative will help to set these nations on a better path. In any case, in giving more money and more prominence to development aid and the fight against AIDS, Bush has taken steps that have the potential to improve and prolong the lives of millions of people.

Stem cell research

Religious grounds aside, it makes sense to see human life as intrinsically precious and in need of protection only when it has developed some other capacities - at a minimum, a capacity to feel something, possibly some degree of self-awareness. The embryos that are used to generate stem cells are still far from the point at which they have even the minimal capacity to feel something. That is why Bush's opposition to the use of embryos to create stem cells can't be adequately defended on secular grounds.

America's tax system

Bush's conception of "a single nation of justice and opportunity" cannot be reconciled with his opposition to taxes on a small number of especially high-value estates and on dividends, nor with his support for giving most of the budget surplus that existed when he was elected to the presidency back to taxpayers who are not in need, nor with his continued support for tax cuts favourable to the rich after that surplus disappeared.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'On Iraq, Afghanistan, Foreign Aid, and More'