George W. Bush: A Muddy Morality
The Globe and Mail, May 1, 2004
In logic, there are no surprises. It will not come as news that the ethical beliefs of the current President of the United States are confused, contradictory, fuzzy and often bizarre. But sometimes the value of logic is all in the showing. Peter Singer, an Australian-born professor of philosophy at Princeton University, has done what few would attempt without misgiving, not least for the presumed threat to their peace of mind. He has taken seriously George Bush's claim to be a consistent and clear moral thinker.
Well-known for his defence of animal rights and harsh stand on some forms of human disability -- not many academic philosophers become the target of death threats, or get profiled in The New Yorker -- Singer is first and foremost a careful philosopher. Which is to say that his weapons are evidence and argument; he speaks in the soft, insistent terms of the rational inquisitor. This valuable book offers quiet, inexorable advance on a Bush who can neither run nor hide.
The analysis is timely and necessary, especially in an election year, with op-ed pages and bestseller lists dominated by insult, personal hostility and the sort of rhetoric that a more sophisticated civilization reserves for its sandboxes. Singer's calm, devastating catalogue of irrationality makes people like Ann Coulter and Charles Krauthammer look like petulant children dressing up and preening in front of mother's mirror.
The results are not pretty. Bush professes value for life (and so opposes abortion and stem-cell research), but inflicts selective death (in death-penalty support, military adventures and civilian casualties). He supports limited government (and so opposes national health care), but uses federal power when it suits (and so blocks environmental protection in Oregon, atheistic language in California and perhaps same-sex marriage everywhere). He speaks highly of human rights, but denies prisoners access to counsel, trial or public voice in Guantanamo Bay.
Despite the rhetoric of Bush's inaugural address, in which he promised "to build a single nation of justice and opportunity," the United States remains one of the least egalitarian countries on earth, with one per cent of the population holding more than 38 per cent of its wealth. The Bush tax cuts widen the gap sharply. By the year 2010, Bush tax policy will have reduced tax revenue by $121-billion (U.S.) for the richest 1.4 million Americans, but by $113-billion for the remaining 139 million taxpayers.
"It's your money," Bush said in defence of the cuts, apparently meaning, if you have lots of money, you'll get even more.
What is Bush's overall ethical world view? He is a conservative, yes, but also a blind, deceitful ideologue about Iraq. He speaks of duty, but makes consequential calculations when it suits. He demonizes "evildoers" in the name of Christian belief, but is open to negotiation on the sacredness of life and the value of individual freedom. Indeed, Bush often trumpets his Christianity, but he really resembles the Manicheans, the early-church heretics condemned by Saint Augustine because their good-versus-evil world view undermines personal responsibility.
Bush has, in short, what Singer rather charitably calls "an intuitive ethic" -- which is to say, one with no special regard for consistency or rational defensibility. Bush thinks he knows the right answer and finds arguments for the rightness only when he has to, like Homer Simpson -- but not Bart; he has a code. Bush's faith-based arguments, including those against stem-cell research and about weapons of mass destruction, are identical in form to the Raelians' arguments for self-cloning. His claims of religious moral superiority are logically no different in form from those made by al-Qaeda. In the light of public reason, all gods and all space aliens are indistinguishable; they are invisible authorities whose very invisibility is a sign of their presumptive authority.
Unmoved by logic, closed to disagreement or revision, Bush seems stuck at what the Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg labelled the "conventional" stage of moral development -- the stage, Singer notes, "typically reached by early teenage boys." He has respect for authority and rules, but no ability to think or act "in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency." As Bush himself would say, he doesn't "do nuance."
Despite much self-congratulation, he doesn't do clarity either -- a debility that runs in the Bush family. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times described the younger Bush as "less interested in ideas than perhaps anybody I've ever interviewed." That comment runs in eerie parallel to this one about his father, from an 1992 Atlantic Monthly profile with the tagline "Can George Bush Think?" The answer was unsurprising. "Can he think in an organized, linear way about problems?" a former presidential staffer asked of Bush Senior. "Can he pose the thesis and antithesis, and draw a synthesis? No. He's the least contemplative man I've ever met."
No surprise there. As a certain 15-year-old I know once complained, "ideas are boring."
You might say that very few people would survive Singer's probing attention, and you would be right. Even philosophers sometimes find themselves with conflicting ethical intuitions, and most non-philosophers have plenty of them without inflicting too much damage on the world.
Moreover, it is probably an error, as Isaiah Berlin often argued, to make all of one's choices and behaviour conform to a single scale of value. We are rational creatures, yes, but we are also, to paraphrase the ultra-rationalist Kant, the crooked timber from which no straight thing was ever made.
There are two reasons Bush's case is drastically and dangerously different from yours or mine, however. The first is that most of us accept that ethical growth means at least trying to make our actions defensible, if not entirely consistent, in the court of reason. The second is that we do not make ethical choices that send thousands to their deaths, condemn millions more to ongoing poverty, or dominate the world in the name of an obscenely prosperous few.
The final non-surprise is that Singer's arguments are unlikely to make much difference to George Bush. That's the trouble with moral adolescents.