Peter Singer at UCLA Critiques President Bush's Ethics
Leslie Evans
UCLA, March 16, 2004

Distinguished Princeton University Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer spoke at UCLA March 11 on the topic of his latest book, "The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush." Welcomed by fellow Australian Geoffrey Garrett, vice provost of UCLA's International Institute, with the traditional "G'Day, Mate," Singer contrasted the president's refusal to sacrifice already warehoused embryos to conduct potentially life-saving research to his readiness to bomb civilian neighborhoods in Baghdad in hopes of killing one of Saddam Hussein's henchmen, declaring that the president is inconsistent in his claim to defend the sanctitiy of human life. He also scored Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol on global warming as a refusal to take responsibility for the large amount of climate-altering gases released into the environment by the United States, declaring "we are unfairly passing on problems to other countries in order to maintain our own high living standard, in order to maintain our own way of life in which [we are] driving as much as we want in cars as big as we like." The well-attended meeting was part of the Burkle Forum series sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.

Singer is a founder of the animal rights movement, sparked in part by his 1975 book Animal Liberation. He has written widely on the ethics of human biology, including issues such as abortion and stem cell research. He is the author of the major article on ethics in the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britttanica.

Singer began by explaining how he became interested in the president's moral views. "Why does someone who generally has been writing about bioethics, that is, ethical issues in medicine and the biological sciences, and about questions to do with the rights and moral status of animals turn to questions about the ethics of George W. Bush? Well, the stretch is not quite as far as it might seem, because, it seems like a long time ago now, but if you can think back to August of 2001, the first year of the Bush presidency, there was a moment in which he made his first prime time televised address to the nation.

One of the Most Profound Issues of Our Time

"And that first address to the nation was not, of course, about terrorism, since the terrible events of September 11 had not yet occurred. And it was not about the economy, and it was not about things like the crisis of HIV/AIDS in Africa, which President Bush was only later to take up as an issue. It was about the use of stem cells for research. . . . And he described it as one of the most profound issues of our time."

In that talk the president announced a ban on all federal funding for any new stem cell research, although he said existing funding for what he said were about 60 stem cell lines already in existence would not be withdrawn. The research included a search for cures for diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. Altogether, Peter Singer said, "things that could affect up to 120 million Americans." (In the question period Singer commented further on this issue: "It has turned out in fact that these 60 cell lines that Bush said existed really didn't exist or else were useless for research purposes. And it was no surprise to anyone in the field that it was foreign scientists, in this particular case Korean ones, who announced a month or so ago that they had succeeded in producing cloned stem cells from a woman, in other words getting stem cells from a blastocyst that had been taken from a woman. A real breakthrough in this field, not coming from American scientists. I'm sure there will be other breakthroughs in this field not coming from American scientists.")

Singer sought to examine the moral premise of Bush's stem cell order. It was, he said, "an odd compromise in some way. There is a bit of sense if you start from the premise that human embryos are precious and must not be destroyed, that they are human life and that they have a right to life, then there was some logic in that kind of compromise."

Having become interested, Singer began to study George Bush to understand his moral universe. "I became more sensitive to the fact that the president treats a lot of issues as moral issues. This one I guess anyone would treat as a moral issue, but he in speech after speech talks about right and wrong, he talks about things as moral imperatives, talks about ethics. And that tendency, of course, increased after September 11."

It was apparent that at least among the section of the electorate who voted for Bush that his posing many political issues and choices as moral issues was highly popular. Singer decided to look closely at the ethical problems involved.

Compassionate Conservatism and Tax Cuts

One issue where Singer regarded George Bush as promising one thing but delivering another was his appeal for compassionate conservatism, which seemed to hold out the hope that funds at some level would be found to improve the situation of the have-nots in America, and the tax cuts which closed off the wherewithal to do that.

"You know the slogan, of course, of No Child Left Behind, which was used for the education reform, very much along those lines, saying that compassionate conservatism cares for everyone. There was this series of refrains about the American dream is for you, you know, it's for you whether you are the poor rural farmworkers, it's for you whether you are living in the barrios, whatever it is, no matter how poor you may be, the American dream is for you and we are going to make sure that works.

"So there was this compassionate conservatism side, and then at the same time there was the strong insistence on tax cuts. . . . There a number of things you can say about this. One is that if you are going to try to make the American dream a reality for everyone, it seems pretty obvious that that costs money. That hasn't happened so far, and Bush said it hasn't happened. He said it is disgraceful that there is poverty in American today, and so on. So if you want to do something about that it seems obvious that it takes money."

Singer acknowledged Bush's opposition to federal government as the vehicle to solve these problems. "But it still takes money, whether the federal government does it or you hand the money on to faith based charities that you believe will be more efficient in doing it, it still takes money. . . . There seems to be this contradiction between these two themes that were not ever really worked out, not put together."

Singer also felt that the Bush administration misled the American public in its motivations for the tax cut. He called highly questionable "the claim on which the initial argument for the tax cuts was based, that is, it's your money." There is "a bit of a myth there about the idea that you are entitled to all of the pretax earnings. Because it only takes a moment's thought to realize that without government you wouldn't be able to have those earnings at all." Society has to pay for a government to enforce law and order and to "provide infrastructure for materials to be transported and communications to take place. To educate the employees who are going to work . . . and so on. . . .

"The idea that somehow it is your money, you have right to it, and the government has to give it back is itself contributing to a kind of mythical idea that we are all rugged independent settlers, frontiersmen making our living from gathering the berries in the woods and then the government comes along and says, well, you've gathered all those berries, I want some of them. And yet the government didn't have anything to do with your gathering them. Obviously that is a myth. There is nothing like that that is going on. I think that this very handy slogan was really an attempt to get people to think in a simplistic and indefensible way about tax."

Protecting Embryos from Scientists . . .

Here Singer returned to President Bush's August 9, 2001, speech on protecting frozen embryos used in stem cell research. Embryos used in research are generally left over from a couple's efforts to accomplish an in-vitro fertilization. Once the woman is pregnant the remaining donated embryos are commonly left in frozen storage or destroyed. The embryos at the heart of the stem cell debate are not located in women's bodies but are stored in freezers around the world, reportedly some 400,000 of them. Stem cells from embryos are valuable because they are undifferentiated and can grow into any kind of body tissue.

"There are number of things that can be said about the specific speech that Bush made," Peter Singer said. "Essentially if you want to know in one sentence what the fallacy in his argument about the defense of embryos having a right to life was, it consists in the sentence in that speech, you can find it still on the White House website, that these embryos are human and therefore something precious to be protected.

"I think that they are human. I don't deny that these embryos are human, that is they are biologically, genetically human. And I don't deny that they are alive either. They are living. You can tell a dead embryo from a living one. But I don't think that's enough to make anything precious and to be protected. My colleague at Princeton Lee Silver has a nice little trick that he does when he's lecturing to his classes. He's a molecular biologist on stem cells." At this point Singer blew his nose into a tissue. "He does what I just did. Or what I pretended to do, I didn't really do it. And then he points out that in this tissue here there are now thousands of human cells, still alive, and each of which contains my genetic code. So, given a bit of technology, we may not be quite there yet but we are not too far off, we could create individual human beings from all of them. And that is true from all parts of your body. You are shedding skin cells, which have the potential to become new human beings. And they are alive -- for a while. They die obviously. But we don't feel that compulsion and obligation to make more human beings from them.

"I would argue similarly that the fact that a cell is human and alive and even that it has a potential be become a fully fledged human being is not itself a reason for saying that it has a right to life. That I think requires more. . . . it requires more development than an embryo has, which at the stage we are talking about is not even determinate as to whether it is a single individual or whether it is going to split and become twins or something of that sort."

… While Bombing Civilians in Iraq

Peter Singer sought to draw a broader conclusion about George Bush's commitment to fostering "a culture of respect for life." He saw this commitment as exaggerated in prohibiting scientists access to frozen embryos that would never become human beings, but as notably missing when the president approved bombing civilian areas in Iraq to achieve militarily insignificant results.

"As far as the waging of war is concerned," Peter Singer said, "we've had statements from General Tommy Franks and from Don Rumsfeld about how careful this government has been to avoid collateral damage. To avoid civilian casualties. These statements simply aren't true. And they are not true on the record as we can see it. Because both in Afghanistan and in Iraq this administration carried out raids that it knew were highly likely to kill civilians, where the military target was not at all a vital one. For example, in Afghanistan a bombing raid carried out by American forces destroyed a village and killed twenty to thirty innocent villagers. When asked why this village was bombed, when the event was reported, a Pentagon spokesman said there was a Taliban truck in the village. So he was saying that's a legitimate military target.

"There was, no doubt, a truck in the village. The truck might have been being used to take Taliban from one place to another. But was that so central to the war effort to destroy that truck that it was worth risking the lives of twenty or thirty civilians?"

He gave another example, from the war in Iraq. "U.S. planes bombed a civilian neighborhood in the town of Basra, killing a number of civilians. The New York Times reported, particularly, on a family called Hamudi, a family of fourteen that had been living in a house in that area. Ten members of that family of fourteen were killed in the raid. Children, teenagers, older people. Ten out of fourteen of the family. They were not Baathists or anything of the sort.

"Why was that area bombed? Because it was believed that the man called Chemical Ali, the Iraqi general who had ordered the use of poison gas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was in that neighborhood. Well, it turns out he wasn't in that neighborhood, because four months later he was captured alive. Or if he was, certainly the bombing didn't get him. But even if he had been, was that so important that it was worth bombing a civilian neighborhood and killing civilians? There was no evidence that he was in control of any particular military forces at that time. The fighting in Basra was really over. The British were already around the city. So what was really the point of trying to kill him at the cost of almost certainly taking civilian lives?"

Singer said that Pentagon policy during the Iraq war required personal approval by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "About 50 such attacks were proposed. Rumsfeld approved all of them. I think it is quite false to say that there was real concern taken to protect the lives of Iraqi civilians."

Singer then pointed to a contrast "between an apparently extremely scrupulous concern to protect the lives of human embryos . . . and the attitude toward Iraqi civilians. I don't believe that it can be said that the president is putting forward a coherent and consistent ethic of respect for human life. "

Was It Fair Not to Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

Singer said that he has had a long-time interest in climate change and global warming. "So I listened carefully when Jim Lehrer put the question to both candidates as to whether they would sign the Kyoto protocol. Then-governor Bush said that he would not sign the protocol because it did not bind countries like China and India, and he said that was not fair. He said we needed a more even-handed treaty than the Kyoto protocol. There was an argument of fairness here that made a claim that it would be unfair for America to be bound if China and India were not."

Singer quoted Bush's remarks on this from the first presidential debate with Al Gore:

"I'll tell you one thing I'm not going to do is I'm not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air like the Kyoto treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty and I think we need to be more even handed."

He also quoted White House press secretary Ari Fleisher after the election. When asked whether President Bush would call on drivers to sharply reduce their fuel consumption, the reply was, "That's a big no. The president believes that its an American way of life and that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one."

Singer commented on this stance: "So the president is saying that it is not fair for the United States to have to restrict its greenhouse gas emissions while China and India do not. And he is not going to interfere with Americans' rights to drive as much as they like, or reduce their fuel consumption, or have vehicles that are significantly more fuel efficient. The president has also called for an ethic of responsibility. That is, that we be responsible for the consequences of what we are doing." Here he showed a projection of a graph on the amount of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, produced by developed and developing countries. "The developed world are putting out about 60%, while the developing world, which is about four fifths of the world's population, is responsible for about only about 40% of the emissions. But carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time. The emissions from Henry Ford's first Model T are still up there in the atmosphere."

Here he pointed to a graph that showed the source of accumulated carbon dioxide over a prolonged period. "It is obvious that the developed world has been responsible for about 85% of the emissions in the atmosphere. So it's us, it's our living standard that has created the problem. And of course we do have a much higher living standard than the other countries, the developing countries. So it seems to me a very difficult case to try to argue that there is some unfairness in saying that the ones who caused the problem should at least be the first ones to do something about it."

The United States, he added, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Although it has only 5% of the world's population it emits significantly more than China, which has 23% of the world's population. "Especially if you look at it on a per capita basis we are emitting something like five or six times per capita as much as China, and yet the president is saying he will not sign on to the treaty because it is not fair because it doesn't bind China and India. Well, if you get into India, India is producing much less than China on a per capita basis."

"I think by not signing on," he said, "you can say that we are unfairly passing on problems to other countries in order to maintain out own high living standard, in order to maintain our own way of life in which driving as much as we want in cars as big as we like is an important part of it, we are going to inflict climate change on countries that are much less well equipped to cope with it. Sub-Saharan African nations where rains will become less predictable and farmers will be unable to survive in droughts. Peasants living on very low-lying land on the Bay of Bengal already subject to flooding. When sea levels rise, as they predictably will with climate change, they will be inundated and unable to farm their land. And we are the ones who are causing those problems. So I think there is a very serious moral deficit in what's happening there, too."

The United Nations and the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

For Peter Singer, the most serious moral failing of the Bush administration was how it conducted the invasion of Iraq. He insisted that Bush was wrong to bypass the United Nations and that the reasons given did not justify the act. "Of course as we now know there was no threat to the U.S. national security from Iraq, but even if we did think that there was, there was still a question of procedures about waging a preemptive war. And I think there is no doubt that the war was illegal in terms of international law. That is, the right to wage preemptive war is an extremely limited one."

Preemtive attack, he argued, has been, even in American tradition, limited to a response to the threat of imminent attack by the other country. "Now you might think that Saddam was a brutal tyrant and it was a good thing to overthrow him. I have no quarrel with the view that Iraq is better off without Saddam. But I do have a quarrel with the view that any nation that doesn't like a particular leader has the right to go in and overthrow that leader. I don't think that is a recipe for a peaceful world. I think whatever its imperfections, and it certainly has some, the United Nations is the best hope for a peaceful world. It may need to be reformed. It would be good to have an American administration that would take a lead in trying to reform the United Nations. But it is not good to have an American administration that basically says, we don't want the United Nations to play a role in the resolution of disputes between nations, because that's what the United Nations was set up to do, set up by the United States to do that in the aftermath of World War II. I think that that's a clear case also of acting unethically."

Given that the United States is only 5 percent of the population of the world, he asked, "how can it have the right to rule over the rest of the world?"

Is Bush a Manichean?

Singer concluded with some comments on the source and character of President Bush's moral views. "Some of the things that he says obviously seem to be drawn from a Christian ethic. He talks a lot about religion, he talks a lot about god and so on. So some of the things, what he says about embryos and stem cells maybe comes from a Christian ethic. Compassionate conservatism, his language about it anyway if not what he does, comes from a Christian ethic.

"The constant talk about good and evil seems to come actually from a fairly evangelical Christian background, the idea that the world is somehow in a titanic struggle between good and evil, between the forces of good and evil, between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Actually this comes not so much from orthodox Christianity but from the Manichean heresy that Augustine was very concerned to stamp out. But, as many people have pointed out, the Manichean heresy has never really been totally eradicated from the thought of Christians and it seems to be particularly strong among American evangelical Christians. And undoubtedly Bush is echoing some of that when he says things like "We will call evil by its name." I mean, that is a direct quote from the Book of Revelations and discussions of apocalyptic visions of struggles between good and evil and so on.

"So, yes, there is a lot of Christianity in what Bush says, but some of his ethics just doesn't seem to be compatible with Christianity. Jesus talks a lot about bringing peace, about if someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek. Paul talks about do not repay evil with evil. And yet it seems clear that Bush was quite ready to go to war against the views of the majority of Christian leaders in this country, so it doesn't seem that he is Christian when it comes to going to war.

"On many other issues he seems in my view simply to have a kind of instinctive response, a gut response. That he somehow knows what is good and what is evil, and he's not very reflective about this."

Singer cited an anecdote from a book by President Bush's former speech writer David Frum that strikingly illustrated the character of Bush's moral compass. Frum "says that Bush was so committed to telling the truth that when he was about to come to California, the day before, his aide said he should go and record a speech that would be broadcast when he is in California. So he goes to the recording studio in Washington or in the White House or whatever, to read this speech. And he starts reading the speech, saying "Today I am very happy to be in California." And then he stops and says, "But I'm not in California." And he doesn't want to read the speech because it would be a lie to say today I'm happy to be in California when he's right there in Washington, DC. "

What does such a story tell us about the president? "There is a very literal sense of what it is to be truthful here. Which seems to be in my view a rather childish reading of moral rules and rule making. And yet, of course, when it comes to much bigger untruths, misleading the nation into war, he has never really taken responsibility for that. He has never said, Yes, I was wrong, I misled you, that was a terrible thing to do, I'm sorry, I'm determined to get to the bottom of this. And whoever fed me that advice, whether it came from Condi Rice or from her aide Steven Hadley, or from CIA Director Tenet, whoever it is I am going to find out who made that mistake and they are going to have to go. For an error that large, and it is a huge error, thousands of lives were lost because of it, heads have to roll, surely. The president has never said that.

"So I think he has a kind of very literalist reading of what ethics requires, and in fact what it really requires is a lot more reflection, a lot more nuance, and not just this instinctive readiness to see everything in terms of the black and white terms of good and evil."

Selections from the Question Period

What the Neocons Might Say

The question session was opened by moderator Geoffrey Garrett, who sought to pose some hard questions for the ethicist. "I was just looking at some of the things on the back cover of the book with wonderful lines like "Peter Singer has ripped the sanctimonious preachy bark off George W. Bush" and "George W. Bush has met his match… Peter Singer reveals the gigantic gap." I am wondering what the neocon review of this book says. And here is what I think it says: It says Peter Singer Misses the Mark or, I don't know which is a better title, Peter Singer Has a Tin Ear. Now here is the criticism. The criticism says here's this guy who says he knows all about ethics and morality, but he misses the most obvious thing about the Bush presidency, which is it's about fighting for freedom, which is the core value of the United States, and it binds domestic and foreign policy. And that's why the president is still popular even though there were no weapons of mass destruction. Because post-September 11 the United States has been galvanized behind protecting freedom and extending it abroad and that is exactly what the president has done and that is why the president's approval rating on the war is still in the 55 to 60 percent range. So all this stuff about small things -- Kyoto, ICC -- who cares about that? The tax cuts are right, it was our money. It's about freedom. It's about individualism. And the tax cuts and the war in Iraq and post-September 11 foreign policy are two halves of the same acorn, brother, not mate, and those two halves are about protecting freedom at home and abroad and that is why you lefties just don't get it. What do you think, Peter?"

Singer: "Okay, well the gloves have come off, obviously. Have you ever seen two kangaroos boxing? Well firstly, let me say, that I do not think, despite a lot of talk about it, that President Bush has been a president concerned to maximize freedom domestically. I say that even apart from the Patriot Act and the restrictions of civil liberties and so on that many conservatives are very concerned about post-9-11. But look at, for example, the attempt by Attorney General Ashcroft to overthrow Oregon's physician assisted suicide law. Oregon has twice, not once but twice in referenda, approved a law allowing physicians to prescribe a lethal substance to someone who satisfies a string of conditions -- they have to be terminally ill, there has to be a certain time period, they have to see two doctors, and so on -- for assistance in dying.

"President Bush, when he was campaigning, seemed to be a strong campaigner for individual liberty. He said Americans need to be given responsibility for their own lives. And he also was a strong campaigner for states' rights. He said, as governor of Texas, I say let Texans decide what's best for Texas, not some distant federal bureaucracy. And yet when he gets into office the attorney general, certainly a distant federal bureaucrat as far as the people of Oregon are concerned, goes into court to try to use a section of a legislation that Congress passed which gives the federal government some powers to regulate the prescription of drugs. But from all the discussion of that law, all the debate, it was clearly focused on preventing doctors from drug dealing, i.e., targeting doctors who were prescribing amphetamines or other drugs to hundreds of their patients. It had nothing to do with physician assisted suicide. Ashcroft tries to go into court to use that to overturn Oregon's legislation which gives individuals liberty to decide when they are going to die when they are terminally ill. . . .

Can Democracy Be Imposed at Gunpoint?

On the international front, Singer repeated that the United States had been wrong to go into Iraq without UN aproval, but added here: "I think it would be a totally different matter if the United States had gone to the UN and said, look, there are a number of tyrants in this world who are particularly despotic, who are committing crimes against humanity, against their subjects, we want to support the international rule of law, and to do that we will sign on to the International Criminal Court, which is designed to bring these kinds of people to justice even if they are obeying the laws of their own country. And we will go further, we will create conditions under which a United Nations body can decide when intervention is justified to overthrow tyrants and to establish democracy. And to do that in a multilateral way with multinational forces.

"I think there is a case for doing that. I say a case because the real worry, of course, is whether you can bring democracy to people at gunpoint. This is what is still an open question in Iraq. We don't know. A lot of people have said that it is very difficult to establish democracy in this way, because one of the things that happens is, as soon as you invade a country you raise nationalist hackles, right? Whereas previously, maybe, it was only a small group of extremists who were very hostile to America, very anti-American, very strongly nationalist or strongly Islamist or something of that sort, they then become the rallying point for opposition, and more moderate people go over to them. And I think there is a real danger that Iraq will degenerate into a state of civil war rather than emerge as a democracy. I certainly hope that doesn't happen, but I think there is a danger of it and we need to be very careful about these kinds of foreign military expeditions to restore democracy."

Shouldn't We Be More Skeptical about the UN?

Question: "I think it is healthy that we have a skeptical view of the United Nations in this administration. Most observers who are balanced would look at this and say it's bordering on the bizarre. Ethics in the UN is a fungible commodity. It's an agency that has Syria in the Security Council and Libya as chair of the Human Rights Commission. So I for one think it is useful but I think we need to be very skeptical about what it says. . . . I don't think that Bush's position vis-à-vis going into Iraq, while it may be flawed, he is certainly not the first president to do this kind of thing. If memory serves me right the last administration when into Bosnia and Yugoslavia with an actual veto of the United Nations."

Singer: "No, there wasn't a veto. There was no Security Council resolution before the intervention, in Kosovo is what you are thinking of. But it was feared that Russia would veto it and that is why it wasn't put. Somewhat similar."

Same questioner: "So this could be considered a precedent. If you are using that as your argument that it is a unilateral event that was so extraordinary and without precedent, it might be somewhat more temperate to say there is some precedent for that. I am also a little troubled by your analogy about stem cells, where I happen to disagree with the administration's views, and Iraq and the killing of civilians. I honestly don't think they are parallel. There are separate rationales for each. One might criticize Bush and say he is promoting a religious point of view that we may well disagree with and want to vote him out of office, but I'm not sure I would come to the level where I would say that he is an unethical leader. And as a final concluding comment I do think some credit ought to be given to this administration for some extraordinary work in Sudan and for the fact that it has the best record of any administration in trying to tamp down white slavery and prostitution among women, and I do think there is more credit that you might give in some balance for human rights."

Singer: "You are right that it is not unprecedented for nations, including the United States, to intervene without UN support. There was a larger and more significant group of nations that went in in Kosovo, I guess all of NATO. But still I think there were questions to be asked about that. The other thing is that this was more of an emergency response. There was an immediate humanitarian crisis. It was feared that the Kosovars were about to be massacred as the Muslim Bosnians had been massacred by Bosnian Serbs and so on. And that has been true generally of other cases. I would defend Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia to throw out the murderous Khmer Rouge, the Pol Pot regime, which had killed about 3 million people. The United States actually didn't support that because of its history with Vietnam still at that time. But I think that was a justifiable intervention and it did stop very large-scale killing that was happening right then.

"Saddam for all his brutality and atrocities was not engaged in large-scale killing of his population at the time when the United States attacked. He had been, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, perhaps up to 1995 when he attacked the marsh Arabs. But in recent years, the last two or three years, individuals have certainly been jailed, tortured, shot, and so on, but it was not an on-going atrocity on a large scale. I think there is absolutely no doubt that more civilians have been killed in Iraq since last March as a result of the invasion than were being killed in the preceding months by Saddam. And that is still happening. Not necessarily even by American forces as you can see. We don't really know who, but by sectarian forces that are attacking each other. I think if Saddam in a day had killed 180 people, as happened with bombs quite recently, certainly there would have been outrage. So that is part of it.

"On the question of the United Nations I agree that it's not at all perfect but the need is to try and reform it and improve it, and we could talk about that for a long time. On Bush's efforts regarding human rights in general and slavery and prostitution, that is certainly creditable. Some good things have been done, some good efforts have been made. I'm not afraid to give credit. I think he has done more on HIV/AIDS than Clinton did, and Clinton never increased foreign aid. Even if Bush hasn't increased it enough, Clinton didn't increase it at all. Yes, there have been some good things that have done. But it's an overall record that we have to look at."

Bush's Positions on Haiti and Gay Marriage

Question: "What is your ethical assessment of this administration's stand on Haiti and gay marriage?"

Singer: "Haiti and gay marriage -- two very different issues. Interestingly they are both issues on which there has been a 180 degree turnaround from what the president said when he was campaigning, in the presidential debates. In the presidential debates he was asked about what America's foreign policy should be, and he said he thought America should be humble. He said that if we are arrogant, people won't like us, but if we are humble they will respect us. He specifically said in answer to a question that he did not believe in nation building. He thought it was a mistake to send troops into Haiti to restore Aristide. And he said he would not have sent troops into Rwanda, which suggested he was not in favor of humanitarian intervention at that time. Because if ever there was a good case for humanitarian intervention it was Rwanda where most observers think a force of maybe 10,000 soldiers could have prevented a massacre that killed 800,000 people. So he has completely turned around.

"I think he made the right turn on that test, because I think it was justifiable to intervene to try to protect law and order in Haiti. That is something that is manageable, should be manageable. But I'm not sure whether the United States actually pushed Aristide or not. Secretary Powell has denied it, but there are a lot of people thinking that America did. And I am not sure whether some of the press that Aristide got about being involved with killer gangs and so on was really fair. Because there is certainly the alternative view, which is that Aristide was pushed out because he was too much on the side of the poor in Haiti and was offending some of the interests of the wealthier. I really don't know enough about the situation to say if that is true or not. But in the actual crisis that occurred I think some use of American forces was justified to prevent widespread killing.

"The turnaround on gay marriage is exactly what I was talking about before when I said that in the run-up to the election Bush was very much in favor of states' rights. And he was specifically asked on the Larry King show, what about gay marriage? And he said, don't try to trap me in a states' rights issue. The states can do what they like on that. So he has completely swung around, and there I think he swung the wrong way. I think his view was right the first time. It should be an issue for states. Personally I think if gays want to get married I don't see why they shouldn't. That's my personal view, but politically I think it is not a federal issue. It should be an issue in which states are able to decide what they want to. That's the way marriage has generally been in this country and I can't see a reason for interfering with that."

Does Ethics Play a Role in Real Wars?

Question: "In numerous wars since the American Revolution, some ethical and some not ethical, we have only retreated when there have been heavy losses. [Ethics] has never seemed to be the deciding factor. I'd like your opinion on this."

Singer: "My opinion on why ethics is not the deciding factor in why countries retreat? Well I think once you get into a war -- and you are talking about wars that the United States has actually fought -- you do arouse national feelings, national pride, that is not really necessarily ethical. An interesting case is the First World War, where Woodrow Wilson tried very hard to get a just peace on the basis of ethical principles. And he failed. He failed, really, because of the nationalist feelings of France and Britain, who had suffered so much, I guess, in the war, lost so many, that they wanted a vindictive peace rather than a just peace. And perhaps the origins of the tragic Second World War are due to the fact that ethics did not produce the resolution of the First World War.

"There is an implication in you question that somehow ethics doesn't really do any work, it's not there because you only get out of wars when you are suffering heavy casualties. But it's a mistake to think of ethics only once a nation has gone to war. There may be many other occasions in which a nation has not actually taken part in war because it felt it would be wrong to do so, and those were the wars that were never fought, perhaps, because of a sense of ethical constraints. If that is so, then ethics does play some role."

Question: "Does ethics really play a part in what nations do, or is it really more of a Machiavellian approach? Is it that ethics are secondary and events can have an ethical overlay and so much the better, but what's really good for the country is the prime mover?"

Singer: "There are two possible views, obviously. There is the so-called realist view that says that countries just pursue their own interests, and ethics at most is a kind of veil that is drawn over the naked use of power. And others who say that ethics plays some sort of role. I think that it does play a role, but I admit that if a nation's survival is at stake or if a nation is in desperate need, probably ethics doesn't play much of a role. But once a country has managed to meet the basic needs of its people and can feel reasonably secure, I think ethics increasingly plays a role. That is, countries start to say they want to have a sense of national self-respect, if you like, as we do individually. . . ."

How to Fight Clerical Barbarism

Question: "I just want to touch back on the point you made about neoconservatist views on war in the world today. And I can read you a quote that I found online: 'I'm a single-issue person at present, and the single issue in case you are wondering is the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism. If in the smallest doubt about this, I would suggest a vote for the re-election of George Bush, precisely because he himself isn't prey to any doubt on the point. There are worse things than simple mindedness … '

"That quote was not made by a neoconservative, that quote was from Christopher Hitchens, a very prominent leftist [from a February 8, 2004, column by Christopher Hitchens--ed.]. Do you think that the time of looking at national affairs from a Treaty of Westphalia point of view, where countries interference with each other is contained at the government level, has passed us, such that threats that lie within a country can pose external threats to other nations and thus require intervention?"

Singer: "Yes, I do believe that the age of absolute national sovereignty that the Treaty of Westphalia ushered in 300 years ago has more or less passed. I have another book I wrote a year or two ago called "One World" in which I talk about that. But I think that the answer to that is not to call on an individual nation to take over and make those decisions. That is a kind of Hobbesian world in which the United States says, we are the global sovereign, we are the Leviathan in Hobbes' terms, and we are going to play that role. What I would say to Christopher Hitchens is, yes, of course I'm on the side of civilization as against clerical barbarism, or any form of barbarism for that matter, however we define that. But you have to ask whether invading Iraq is actually helping or hindering the forces of clerical barbarism? Saddam for all his terrible failings was certainly not clerical. He was basically a secular government and he was very much opposed by Al Qaeda and Bin Laden and people of that sort. And I have no doubt that they were rejoicing in their hearts when America attacked Iraq, because firstly, America was getting rid of someone that they despised and had contempt for, who was ruling an Islamic country in a non-Islamic way, and secondly they could see that this would help their cause in portraying America as hostile to Islam, hostile to Islamic interests, and concerned to dominate the Middle East. I'm sure it has been a wonderful recruiting tool for all of them. And of course it has brought hundreds of thousands of Americans closer to them and so they have been able to kill more Americans because of that with greater ease. And I think that if what we want is to somehow live with the Islamic world and to encourage the more moderate elements in the Islamic world, then attacking an Islamic nation is not the way to do it."

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Peter Singer at UCLA Critiques President Bush's Ethics', by Leslie Evans