The President of Good and Evil
reviewed by Erik Marcus, April 2, 2004

Princeton ethics professor Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, is often thought of as the founding voice in the modern animal rights movement. But his influence extends well beyond the subject of animals. He's also, by many accounts, the world's most influential living philosopher. His influence is attributable to the fact that he’s not a stereotypical philosophy professor writing obscure books only a handful of academics will read. Instead, Singer's philosophy confronts head-on the most pressing social issues of our time.

You'll want to wear waders when reading Singer, because invariably you'll find yourself standing hip-deep in sewage. Singer built his career by reasoning through the most disturbing issues facing society. There are no easy or gentle answers available in the problems that Singer confronts. From animal experimentation to the rights of severely disabled infants, Singer thrusts himself into debates where every possible decision involves the certainty of suffering. But it's precisely these realms that, however unpleasant they may be to linger in, are most deserving of serious thought. In a sense, he's the Mother Teresa of philosophers—a man who chooses to live his intellectual life in a morass of hellish alternatives, striving to discern the least unkind action among many unpleasant choices.

All of which makes the subject of his latest book both surprising and predictable. The President of Good and Evil looks at George W. Bush’s presidency, and makes a sincere attempt to penetrate its subject's thinking. As with any president nearing the end of his first term, there's no shortage of books available. Several of the most popular anti-Bush books are as shallow as their subject. What emerges is some mixture of anger and disgust, tempered with humor to help the medicine go down.

Singer knows he's never going to match Al Franken or Michael Moore in his ability to deliver a laugh, so his book makes no attempt to be funny. He takes a different tack: giving his subject the benefit of the doubt; which raises the question of whether there's enough substance in Bush's words and deeds for a serious thinker like Singer to practice his craft. And, surprisingly, there is. Early in his book, Singer demonstrates that the President has said plenty to establish a philosophical framework upon which his decisions can be judged.

In the book’s opening paragraph, Singer writes:

George W. Bush is not only America's president, but also its most prominent moralist. No other president in living memory has spoken so often about good and evil, right and wrong.

Bush's continuous references to right and wrong create a moral framework by which his leadership decisions can be judged. Regardless of whether or not Bush's core philosophy is moral, if it's at least consistent then it deserves some measure of respect. So Singer begins his book by trying to establish just what it is that Bush believes in, and how closely he sticks to his beliefs. As a former governor, it appears that one of Bush's deepest beliefs is that the federal government must not intrude upon states' rights. Singer cites numerous quotes from Bush asserting the sacredness of states' rights. So there's no surprise when, on the matter of capital punishment, the president makes a case that the federal government has no right to intrude on the states' ability to choose whether and under what circumstances a prisoner should be executed. Whether or not you support Bush's position on capital punishment, it clearly fits within a philosophical framework that should be taken seriously. That is, there are many aspects of government that ought to be decided on the state level. It’s no doubt convenient to Bush that, as an ardent supporter of capital punishment, the death penalty has historically been left up to states. Bush's refusal to interfere with this process may be right or wrong, but at least it's intellectually consistent given his emphatic backing of states' rights.

But what happens on matters that are equally in the realm of states' rights, when the decisions being made aren't according to Bush's liking? Here, we see Bush happy to throw away his dedication to states' rights. Singer shows how Bush did this on the subject of medical marijuana, despite the fact that states have traditionally been allowed to determine penalties for illegal drug use. No doubt that, had Singer written this book in the past month, he would also have commented on Bush’s efforts to prohibit states from granting marriage licenses to homosexuals.

The matter of states' rights is just one of many areas in which President Bush, speech giver, is consistently at odds with President Bush, lawmaker. The heart of this book examines the decision-making regarding the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Once again, contradictions between Bush's words and his actions abound.

On the subject of terror and Iraq, Singer’s book carries a usefulness that will certainly outlast Bush's presidency. Here, he begins by evaluating various ways in which the President's war policies can be justified. Singer refuses to rule out war as an instrument of achieving justice, and methodically goes through the various arguments Bush has made in support of his war policies. Here, Singer shows his characteristic ability to sweat the details in considering life-or-death matters. Reading this book, we have to sweat these details along with him. And in so doing, we see how Bush’s decision-making lacks the careful analysis that any legitimate "war-time president" needs to carry out.

Will Singer's book help promote a regime change in the United States? Already, it seems that John Kerry is trying out the book's key message. At his stump speeches, he's been telling audiences that Bush is "the biggest say-one-thing, do-another" president in history. The evidence presented by Singer certainly bears out Kerry's contention. But whether Kerry can get any political milage out of this claim is another matter entirely. America has largely turned into a country that fosters schizoid leadership. We’ve got a President who knows how to say all the right things to the NASCAR crowd, an audience uninterested in following and analyzing Bush’s actual policies.

You don't have to follow the news closely to see the inconsistencies in Bush’s policies. But Singer's book reveals these inconsistencies to be far more insidious than they appear at first glance. The President of Good and Evil is a heavyweight treatment of a lightweight President. Thinking along these lines, there’s a reason that heavyweight boxers aren’t allowed to step into the ring against lightweight opponents. The results would be too brutal to witness. Reading this book offers a similarly distasteful experience. But it brings a level of insight into the Bush presidency that is unmatched.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'The President of Good and Evil', reviewed by Erik Marcus