|February 16, 2006|
Book Review: The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
"Bush's childishly literal notion of what is truthful has set the tone for his entire administration."
Yet another book about George W. Bush. But in The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, we have not just more Bush-bashing. The author is Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University whose specialty is ethics. Singer departs from policy and ideology critiques and sets for himself the task of unraveling the words and actions of George W. Bush and assessing whether or not they can be fit into a coherent ethical system. In other words, are Bush's world views and actions ethically self-consistent -- for better or worse -- or do they reveal a haphazard and incoherent assemblage of thoughts?
In his Introduction, Singer relates that when he told friends and colleagues the subject of his book, he was met with expected quips and sarcasm that Bush is such an intellectual dim bulb and cynical politician that it would be a waste of time for a philosopher to take his ethics seriously. But he emphasizes that "tens of millions of people believe Bush is sincere, and they share many of the views he puts forward on a range of moral issues." Furthermore, Bush is not only America's president, says Singer, "he is also the country's most prominent moralist." Thus begins a foray into Bushworld that leads to some very interesting and unexpected conclusions.
Singer begins by examining in rigorous detail Bush's statements on a range of policy issues, including his tax cut; the related budget deficit; stem cell research; capital punishment; the environment; and war In Afghanistan and Iraq. As the words in the book's subtitle suggest, Bush tends to view the world in very simplistic terms, most often expressed as good versus evil. For example, Bush argued for his tax cuts on simple moral grounds, saying "It's your money," echoing the libertarian view that all taxation is a form of theft. Singer argues that "[Bush's] slogan presents a view of the problem so oversimplified as to be deceptive." Indeed, all government money comes from the people through one form of taxation or another. Bush's simple response deflects attention away from this fiscal reality.
Similarly, Bush argues that the estate tax, or "death tax," is unfair. Says Bush: "Eliminate the death tax completely, because people shouldn't be taxed twice on their assets." This also has the appeal of simplicity, but it is a misstatement of fact. It is true legally that the estate tax is on estates of people who have died, but the beneficiaries are the living heirs, and they are not being taxed twice on the assets they receive. Singer makes the point that there is no fundamental moral (or economic) rule that prevents double taxation. For example, we are all taxed doubly when we pay sales tax since the tax is on income which has already been taxed.
In a very different policy area, Bush has banned federal funding for stem cell research. Prior to Bush's public statement, a "fact sheet" was issued explaining that, "Many scientists believe that stem cells have the potential to offer new ways of treating a wide range of diseases that affect approximately 128 million Americans." As a result stem cells offer the possibility of cure for major human maladies such as Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, and heart disease. But only stem cells derived from human embryos are capable of developing into all the different tissues of the human body. The principal source of human embryos is in-vitro fertilization clinics. Women seeking to have children by this method are given fertility drugs to produce eggs which are then withdrawn and fertilized by the father's sperm. All eggs are fertilized to ensure the maximum number of embryos. For example, assume a woman produces five eggs, four of which are successfully fertilized in vitro to produce embryos. To avoid the risk of unwanted multiple births, typically only two of these embryos would be implanted in the woman's uterus. If the woman is successful in conceiving, the remaining two embryos are usually destroyed.
In Bush's view, human life begins at conception and "human embryos are something precious to be protected" and he claims to "worry about a culture that devalues human life." The ethical question for Bush then and those who believe similarly, is why not act to protect those embryos that are routinely destroyed in the clinics, if they are indeed forms of precious human life? As Singer points out, not even the staunchest foes of abortion would even think to suggest such a plan. The truth is that no one really cares about these surplus embryos, including the parents. They can be donated to infertile women, but this is not common. Most parents do not want their offspring to be developed and raised by others. So, what are they to do with them? Is this loss not part of the same natural process that occurs daily in human life, where embryos are produced in a woman, survive briefly, and then are rejected, very often in the woman's menses without her awareness? Bush makes no attempt to address this contradiction, and the country is left with the religious right having won a major ideological battle through the intervention of "their Christian president." Is it any wonder they support him so strongly?
On other issues, Bush is equally simplistic and inconsistent. Although a strong conservative and advocate of states' rights, Bush nevertheless is not hesitant to use the power of the federal government to curtail state laws he thinks are simply "wrong" -- for example, medical marijuana, or physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, or environmental polices that are stricter than federal standards, such as in California where the legislature is trying to address specific and unique state-level air pollution problems. Even many strong conservatives are uncomfortable with Bush's willful disregard of states' rights.
On the thorny issue of religious belief and action, Singer finds Bush's public expressions worrisome. As the president of 300 million Americans of diverse faiths, Bush falls far short of the Christian ideals of tolerance and acceptance. His narrow, literalist views suggest "a man who accepts what he is told without asking himself any critical questions," and that "there is something about such unquestioning acceptance that should make us all uneasy."
Singer makes the point that "religious sensitivities should not be excluded from the sphere of public reason." However, the problem that arises "is when religious belief is put in a realm that protects it from the usual rule of scrutiny -- [when] further inquiry is cut off with an appeal to faith." Even the most religious minded apply standards of reason in everyday decisions. For example, we don't want our police making decisions based on faith; or our physicians to become "faith-healers;" or our investment advisers appealing to God first and foremost in their decisions on our retirement portfolios. Yet this is the kind of "voodoo" logic that Bush implies by his carefully chosen moralistic words.
At this point Singer asks if there is any underlying ethic the president holds. He concludes there is not, that Bush "offers no broad ethical principles" to guide him, that his constantly shifting positions are ethically contradictory. Bush cannot be defined as having either an "individual rights ethic," a "utilitarian ethic," or a "Christian ethic." Rather, says Singer, Bush appears to be driven by what Bob Woodward called "a secular faith in his instincts." For example, on Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq, Howard Fineman is quoted as saying that "[Bush] decided that Saddam was evil, and everything flowed from that." It was then intuitively obvious for Bush that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
As he concludes his book, Singer looks more broadly at the question of Bush's honesty or dishonesty. In an interesting discussion, he cites observations made by David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. Frum describes what he calls "a moral fervor in the White House" which Singer says "could be extraordinarily petty." Frum relates how in a meeting he responded to a question about his confidence in a certain claim he had made, exclaiming that he was "damn right," only to be met with prolonged silence and a chilly response. Frum quickly changed that to "I am quite sure." Singer says that this "tendency to take simple moral rules in absolute and literal fashion -- suggests an arrested moral development."
He supports this argument by citing work done by Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg who studied moral judgment in children, adolescents and adults from the United States and other countries. Kohlberg found that we all move through three major stages of moral development, the last being what he calls the "postconventional stage," where one moves away from "an orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of social order" that characterize the prior stage, to a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of rules and the possibility of altering these by "appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality and consistency." For Singer, Bush is stuck in the second stage of moral reasoning which is typically reached by teenage boys in the thirteen to sixteen age group. Singer says that "Bush's childishly literal notion of what is truthful has set the tone for his entire administration -- Handicapped by a naive idea of ethics as conformity to a small number of fixed rules, [Bush] has been unable to handle adequately the difficult choices that any chief executive of a major nation must face."
Singer's concluding remarks deal with a discussion of two competing views of what drives Bush's actions. The cynical view is that Bush is fully aware of his inconsistencies and duplicity and is consciously carrying off a sham. The other is conspiratorial, and often heard in Washington, that Bush is only the dupe in a power game run by others both in and out of government. Not surprisingly, Paul Wolfowitz is a leading character in this drama. In either event, this discussion provides a lively and interesting end to the book.
I confess that as I read the beginning pages of the book, with long recitations on Bushworld material with which I was already familiar, I was inclined to agree with Singer's skeptical friends that Bush was so transparently duplicitous and incompetent that little more could be added to the public debate. But I was wrong. By laying out his case logically and systematically, Singer succeeds in pulling together some disparate facts and notions about Bush. This works to defuse Bush supporters who like to refer to Bush's "moral clarity" or Bush being "a man of his word." Singer is convincing in his arguments that such notions are nonsense. Singer adds a different dimension to the long list of books searingly critical of Bush. One can only hope that voters who are still undecided about the Bush presidency will read this short and very readable book.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in aerospace industry for 22 years. He now teaches in the California Community College system.
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