Singer Gets Inside the Mind of George Bush
The Age, July 19, 2003
Unlike George Orwell, who thought politics the critical issue, Peter Singer thinks politics alone cannot solve our problems; nor is it enough to live for. At least that is what he said in his 1993 book How Are We to Live? Now, after four years in the US, as a philosophy professor at Princeton, Singer has plunged into the political mainstream, writing a book on the US president.
Called The Ethics of George W. Bush: President of Good and Evil, the work attempts to come to grips with the mental processes of a man who grew up in a political family and is not afraid to exercise power.
It is not, Singer said during a visit to Melbourne this week, an attack on Bush. The book, he says, takes Bush seriously, and seriously analyses what he says. But that is no easy task, given that Bush (along with most other politicians) favours spin more than straight speaking and does not always live up to his words.
Singer found it difficult to get a coherent picture of Bush's ethics from what the President says. Individualism, for example, a centrepiece of Republicanism (and Bush-speak), has decreased in the past three years. Rather than divest power to voters, Bush has greatly increased the power of the state, Singer says. "Bush has torn up traditional protection of citizens, destroying some of their safeguards," he says.
Inasmuch as Bush has an organised viewpoint, it is Christianity, or his brand of it. Singer is not impressed, not just because he finds fault with the logic of religion, but because Bush does not appear to have questioned his faith. Referring to a story the President tells of being won over by evangelist Billy Graham, Singer says: "Here is a picture of a man who accepts what he is told without asking himself if it's coherent, credible and based on reliable evidence.
It is the sort of criticism you would expect from a philosopher who believes it is impossible to live ethically and still remain indifferent to the unnecessary suffering in the world. Singer, the Melbourne-born, Oxford-educated scholar whose best-known work, Animal Liberation, is an ethical step too far for many, is something of an idealist. He does not seem to think that to be good, a ruler must at times act badly.
But then, like Ronald Reagan, Bush is a gut politician, whose morality is devised on the run. He is not stupid, Singer says, simply more uninterested in detail. Like Aristotle, who wrote his Politics after he wrote his Ethics, believing politics was ethical, Singer thinks politics needs idealism. He cites Greens Senator Bob Brown as Australia's most idealist politician and one who shows what an ethical life can do.
Singer finds American politics unimpressive but says his students are not cynical and are eager to learn about ethics. "It tends to be a quality of the young," he says. Older people tend to be more self-interested and pragmatic. It is a characteristic that, Singer says, will almost certainly see Bush re-elected next year (which is when Singer's book will be published in Australia). "Bush is still pretty popular," he says. "Americans go for patriotic rhetoric. They don't seem to mind misleading information."