The President of Good and Evil
reviewed by Leslie Cannold
Sydney Morning Herald, May 22, 2004
Peter Singer's status as a man of principles and towering intellect - a philosopher extraordinaire, if you will - is unrivalled in Australia. And for good reason. Not only does the father of the animal rights movement refuse to eat or wear animals, his devotion to rational thought gives him a near-unique capacity in the philosophical world to use well structured and lucid prose to explicate for the lay reader some of the most fraught ethical issues of modern times.
While I admit to not always finding Singer's arguments in this latest work persuasive (his fascinating exploration of whether leaders in pluralist societies do wrong when they base their actions on their religious faith left me unconvinced), I remain an ardent admirer of the forthright way he makes his case. Just as a query or counter-argument to one of his claims began forming in my mind, I would find he had anticipated it and, having posed the problem himself, methodically set out to answer it.
The best example of this is Singer's willingness to question the merit of his book's entire project - the articulation of President Bush's "moral philosophy" and an examination of its "soundness". When Singer told friends and colleagues he was working on a book about "Bush's ethics," many of them quipped that the phrase was "an oxymoron," or that "it must be a very short book".
Some criticised Singer for failing to realise that Bush was "just another politician who says whatever he thinks will get him elected".
To this, Singer replies: "Even if [my sceptical friends] are right about the President's motives, that doesn't drain all the interest from the moral philosophy that he defends. Tens of millions of Americans believe that he is sincere and share the views he puts forward. They also accept unquestioningly the bright, positive image of America and its unique goodness that shines through his speeches. Those who think I am naive about Bush's own views may therefore see what follows as an examination and critique of a set of beliefs widely shared by the American public ..."
The early chapters examine the claims Bush makes for America's moral values: that the US is a country of "justice and opportunity" that supports a "culture of life" and is "the freest nation in the world". It soon becomes clear that Singer is directing his claims, and voluminous amounts of evidence, to American readers unable or unwilling to see the inconsistency of the President's ethical positions, or the hypocritical way Bush allows political considerations to derail him from doing what he claims to believe is right.
For those of us not in need of such extensive argument, I recommend fast-forwarding to Chapter 4, "The Power of Faith", where things get more interesting. Here Singer makes the case against a faith-based ethic, and in favour of a morality grounded in "evidence and sound reasoning". He also provides a penetrating discussion of the proper role of religion in public life.
In the second part of the book, exploring America's relationship with the world, Singer makes a strong case that "there is no way" that America's aid and trade policies with developing nations, its attack on the International Criminal Court, and its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, can be "defended as ethical".
He demonstrates how the Bush Administration in the lead-up to war in Afghanistan failed to fulfil at least one, but possibly more, of the seven conditions necessary of the widely-supported "just-war" theory. In the chapter on Iraq, Singer shows how, despite the President's emphasis on truth-telling (which Singer later suggests is evidence of retarded moral development), Bush knowingly "misled" Congress, his citizens, and people all over the world about the "evidence" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Singer saves the best for last. In the final chapter, having dismissed Bush's morality as neither coherently nor consistently rights-based, utilitarian or Christian, Singer concludes the President's ethics are "intuitive". Bush trusts his gut and, because he's so unreflective, "makes no attempt to put his judgments on specific issues together and see how coherently they fit with each other".
In addition, Singer says, the President is clueless about the "moral requirements of honesty", leading his actions often to fall short of the values he endorses. For this, Singer holds Bush accountable, resisting any impulse to shrug off his findings about the President's moral failures with a cynical, "Well, of course he does, he's a politician."
One of the pleasures of reading a Singer book is his near-encyclopedic knowledge of past and contemporary philosophical thought. During the course of this book, however, he saw fit to refer to only one female thinker (Jean Elshtain) in a male cast of what seemed - once I noticed it and began to feel annoyed - like thousands. In the recent past, such token referencing was the best female academics could hope for. In these supposedly post-feminist times, I would have hoped for better.