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The President of Good and Evil by Peter Singer

Scott O’Reilly reviews Peter Singer’s review of George W. Bush’s statements on ethics.

Inquiring after the ethics of George W. Bush might seem to many like a Herculean task, and possibly doomed to failure, but worth a try anyway. Peter Singer, one of the world's best-known philosophers, has taken up this daunting challenge in his The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, and the result is a superbly instructive lesson on the strengths and limits of applying the methods of philosophy to current events.

Immanuel Kant once wrote that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The thought is worth bearing in mind as Singer attempts to apply the sharp edge of logic and sound reasoning against the sometimes-twisted reasoning proffered by Bush and his administration. As Plato recognized long ago, philosophers are rarely kings, and kings are rarely philosophers, hence it might be unreasonable from the outset to expect Bush's public utterances and policies to conform to any rational understanding or explanation. Perhaps Bush is simply a political animal, telling voters whatever they want to hear so long as it furthers his acquisition of power. In Bush's case we might call this the ‘Machiavelli from Mayberry' conjecture – a working assumption that Bush is a cynical operator with the cunning of a fox, and the strength and ferocity of a lion, but who attempts to pass himself off as a meek and humble lamb. Singer rejects this assumption, deciding to take Bush's pronouncements at face value, in effect asking if Bush's words and deeds stand up to philosophical scrutiny. In this, Singer is very much performing the role of a modern day Socrates, asking common sense questions, applying clear reasoning, and using his interlocutors own words as the standard by which they are judged. And like Socrates, Singer makes for a rather formidable gadfly.

Singer examines the president's public statements and positions on all the key issues – tax cuts, environmental policy, stem cell research, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and he repeatedly uncovers glaring contradictions that would appear to undermine not only Bush's credibility, but also the coherence of Bush's stated policy objectives. For instance, he zeroes in on the administration's extraordinarily inconsistent – if not duplicitous – conduct surrounding the march to war against Iraq. As Singer notes, early in the Bush administration key figure such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice went on record saying that Saddam had been disarmed and contained. Within months the administration had flip-flopped, with all the key figures pushing the position that Saddam had stockpiles of WMD that posed an imminent threat requiring a pre-emptive invasion. Singer demonstrates how the Bush administration prematurely pulled out U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq and then failed to secure a second U.N. Security Council resolution that would explicitly authorize force. Failing to see the U.N. weapons inspection process through meant that the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq failed to meet the criteria for a Just War (according to which the use of force is only a last resort when all other means have failed). But it was also, as Singer points out, a violation of international law, the U.N. Charter, and the U.S. Constitution all at the same time. Ironically, Bush argued that in failing to provide a second resolution authorizing force the U.N was making itself irrelevant, blithely ignoring the fact that it was the Bush administration's unilateral actions that were undermining the U.N.

In the end, the U.S. would fail to find Saddam's alleged WMD, but when confronted with this fact Bush reacted by accusing his critics of ‘historical revisionism.’

The shifting rationales, contradictory pronouncements, and legal doubletalk convinced many observers that they had entered some Orwellian alternative universe where a ubiquitous Catch-22 clause is forever trumping the laws of logic and sound reasoning. If no engineer or architect could expect to ignore the principles of geometry and have their work hold up in the real world, how could the Bush administration so consistently disregard the standards of cogency in the pursuit of statecraft? Perhaps the answer is that they couldn't, and that the troubled occupation of Iraq serves as something of a reductio ad absurdum on the Bush administration’s ‘faith-based’ foreign policy.

Singer takes the Bush administration to task for allowing ideology to trump empiricism and sound reasoning. In a particularly effective passage Singer cites a story by the 19th century English mathematician and philosopher William Clifford, which illustrates the perils of basing ones ethics or actions on belief. Clifford asks us to imagine a shipowner who knows his ship could do with a costly inspection and repairs, but sincerely believes that Providence will see the ship and its passengers through on a difficult voyage. Clifford argues that the shipowner's belief was not acquired “by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” When the ship sinks its owner's guilt is not absolved by the sincerity of his faith; indeed he is culpable precisely for substituting belief in place of practical measures.

Singer's point is hard to miss. Even if Bush was entirely sincere in his belief that Saddam possessed WMD, that in no way excuses a general pattern whereby the Bush administration ignored evidence that might contradict its preconceptions. Singer isn't the only philosopher who finds an ideological style of leadership troubling. Karl Popper argued that political and social progress arises not from adhering to timeless principles, unchallenged assumptions, or sacred scriptures, but from trial and error. This is a tremendously simple but powerful idea. It suggests that political truth isn't something a farsighted, ethically-infallible leader intuits from on high, but rather the hard won achievement of putting ideas and institutions to the test and seeing which ones hold up and serve the common good. Time and again, Singer argues, Bush eschews this trial and error approach, particularly in the case of stem cell research, and by ignoring scientific evidence in the case of Global Warming.

Singer examines Bush's ethics from a number of points of view – Utilitarianism, a Judeo-Christian value system, and a Libertarian perspective – and in every case fails to find a consistent framework that would make sense of Bush's moral reasoning. Turning to psychology Singer speculates that Bush's sometimes-rigid adherence to the ‘letter of the law' (but not its spirit) indicates that the president is stuck at what Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg termed the Conventional Stage of morality, which he describes as, “an orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of social order.” Kohlberg describes this as the level of moral development most often associated with 13 year olds. (The idea that the president of the United States has not yet graduated to the Post-conventional level of moral reasoning associated with Kantian-style universal principles is a troubling conjecture, but it might explain a lot).

The conclusion Singer finds most plausible regarding George W. Bush's ethics may be the most disturbing. Singer notes that a high number of key Bush administration officials are disciples of a philosopher called Leo Strauss. Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago until his death in 1973, argued that many of the great ancient philosophers, particularly the Greeks, wrote in a kind of code. Only a select intellectual elite were capable of absorbing the esoteric meaning latent in the texts, while the hoi polloi took everything at face value. The Straussians believe that the masses are simply not equipped to handle the often-grim truths that underlie political and world affairs (remember the old saying: there are two things you never want to see being made, sausages and legislation). But according to Singer the Straussians go even further, suggesting that sometimes the ‘aristocratic gentlemen' charged with governing a polity lack the sophistication to handle the truth. In such cases the elite advisors must be prepared to mislead not just the masses with noble lies, but also the leader. Singer points out that this might explain why Bush's false assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Niger stayed in his State of the Union address while other agencies like the CIA and the State Department regarded it as untrue. It might also explain why Bush appeared on Polish television telling viewers that the U.S. had discovered mobile weapons labs in Iraq, a story disproven weeks before. However, the idea that Bush could claim in the presence of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that “we gave him [Saddam] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in,” strikes Singer as almost too bizarre for belief – Bush had, after all, recalled the inspectors himself before their job was completed. Singer goes so far as to speculate that Bush was intoxicated, on drugs, or perhaps out of his mind when he uttered such obviously preposterous statements. But Singer quickly discounts such explanations, finding it far more plausible that the president may in fact be a patsy or a puppet – with the Machiavellians pulling the strings on the man from Mayberry.

Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Great statesmen often exhibit tremendous contradiction in their personalities and their policies. But what happens when a given leader repeatedly utters statements that contradict their previous statement, as well as reality? A disciple of Machiavelli might argue that this is what leaders are often called to do for the public good. For instance, most of us would probably agree with Winston Churchill that, “occasionally the truth needs a bodyguard of lies.” Singer, however, makes a persuasive case that with George W. Bush those supposedly guarding the truth have mugged it instead. If so, it is worth remembering another thought from Churchill: “A democratic people can face any adversity with fortitude, provided they believe their leaders are leveling with them, and not living in a fool's paradise.”

© Scott O'Reilly 2005

Scott O'Reilly is a contributor to The Great Thinkers A-Z (2004) and writes a monthly column of political humor for Compass Magazine.

The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush by Peter Singer, 2004 (Dutton, $25/Granta £8.99 paperback) 1-86207-693-6.

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