Find the Moral
Paul Mattick
The New York Times, May 1, 2004

From corporate environmental malfeasance, mutual fund fraud and the mega-bilking that defined Enron to Martha Stewart's minor-league insider trading, schoolroom plagiarism and presidential sex, the United States is enjoying one of its recurrent waves of public immorality -- and an equally characteristic obsession with values, family and other, on talk shows and campaign hustings and in pundit publications. In the groves of academe, the tendency is showing itself in the rise of ethics (particularly medical ethics and, improbably, business ethics) as the chief growth field within philosophy. And among its practitioners, none is more prominent than Peter Singer of Princeton University.

Singer has made himself noticed outside the ivory tower: his conviction that animals have significant moral rights means he opposes using them for food as well as for experimentation; a principled openness to euthanasia under various medical circumstances has led to picketing by groups of disabled people. In ''The President of Good & Evil,'' he confronts the ethics of the man he calls America's ''most prominent moralist,'' George W. Bush. As a philosopher Singer must abjure the cynicism with which, he tells us, many of his friends greeted his intention seriously to study the president's ethics. For one thing, Singer's concern is with the views rather than with the man who says he holds them. In any case, he argues, ''tens of millions of Americans believe that he is sincere, and share the views that he puts forward on a wide range of moral issues.'' Hence they are, as he says, worth thinking about.

Much of Singer's discussion proceeds on the basis of common sense, as when he points out that Bush's argument for tax cuts -- that the government has no right to take ''your money'' -- is undermined by his acceptance of taxation for a wide variety of government purposes. But Singer also calls on elements of theory to develop his analyses, as when he notes that ''ownership is not a natural relationship between a person and a thing'' but ''a social convention'': in the United States, law defines how much you get to keep of the money you make using public resources like roads.

Singer is a generous critic. In discussing Bush's reverence for life, evidenced in his opposition to stem cell research, he constructs the most plausible arguments possible against the sacrifice of unwanted embryos, to demonstrate convincingly how unsustainable they are. But he can hardly help observing that Bush's ''culture of life'' cohabits jarringly with his enthusiasm for capital punishment and readiness to inflict civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Singer is led, on issue after issue, to a double conclusion: Bush's views are not intellectually defensible, and his behavior shows he doesn't believe in them anyway.

Singer puts his own finger on the biggest problem with his approach when he insists that ''democratic politics'' should be ''not so much . . . a battle for power . . . but rather . . . a kind of public conversation about issues of common concern.'' This is all very nice, but it seems irrelevant to our real-life democracy. Given that Singer's cynical friends turn out to be correct, we are left with a book of pointers for arguing with your in-laws. I particularly enjoyed Singer's demonstration that in a democratic society, Bible-based morals have no higher claim to respect than space-alien demands that the Raelians take up cloning. But what about the idea that Bush needs support from fundamentalist Christians for re-election?

Can we really expect the ''tens of millions'' to strive more for ethical consistency than the fellow they vote for does? They too -- all of us -- are enmeshed in a system of clashing interests in which prosperity or even survival generally takes precedence over abstract reflection. Singer's willingness to take seriously what people say is admirable. Alas, he forgets to try to understand what they actually do.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Find the Moral', by Paul Mattick