Peter Singer's The President of Good & Evil

by Jan Baughman

Book Review

June 7, 2004

Cover photo of 'The President of Good & Evil' Jacket design by Ray Lundgren

Peter Singer, The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, Dutton, New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-525-94813-9 - Cloth: 280 pages, $24.95.

Peter Singer's The President of Good & Evil offers an exhaustive analysis of George W. Bush's ethics as applied to his domestic agenda, his stance on social matters, and his approach to foreign policy, providing a step-by-step deconstruction of the inconsistencies, or better stated, hypocrisies therein. It is a timely work in the context of a frayed US social infrastructure, troubled economy, environmental decay, the destruction of countries in the name of "war on terrorism," and the resulting demise of America in world opinion.

Singer offers an insight into the faith of George Bush and how he applies it to his presidency:

"George W. Bush is a Christian. His heart, he has told us, is committed to Jesus. As war with Iraq loomed, he read the Bible every day. He also prays daily. He believes in 'a divine plan that supersedes all human plans.' He carries his faith into his public life. He says that liberty is 'the plan of Heaven for humanity.' He thinks that a president should speak for 'the power of faith.' In the Bush White House, as his former speechwriter David Frum put it, 'attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory.' He opens cabinet meetings with a prayer." "...Obviously, such an important part of Bush's life and beliefs, and one so closely intertwined with his ethical views, is relevant to any inquiry into Bush's ethics. We also need to ask to what extent it is appropriate for the elected leaders of pluralist societies to invoke their religious faith on official occasions, in speeches, and radio broadcasts, and to use it as a basis for policy on issues that affect others in the community who do not share such beliefs."

Anyone who has attempted to debate a matter with practical arguments in the face of religious rebuttals, e.g., allowing abortion for the safety of women vs. preserving human life because it begins at conception, is quickly frustrated by the futility of reasoning with blind faith.

Singer, however, takes Bush's statements at face value and then examines their defensibility based on the consistency of their application. We find, then, that the president has a history of dismissing evidence that does not support his beliefs, and promoting his policies in the absence of evidence, using his "faith," to support them. Evidence that sex education and promotion of condom use reduces teen pregnancy is dismissed in favor of promoting abstinence, programs that have had little proven success, but suit his agenda. Mr. Bush values the "life" of frozen embryos which "should not be destroyed because 'human life is a gift from our Creator.' He also refuses to offer evidence, and when asked how he knows this, says it is a matter of faith, and we should open our heart to the Lord, and to Jesus, his only son, and we too will see things as he does."

One could ask why his faith does not put the ultimate judgment in the hands of God, and one can only conclude that he believes he is acting on God's behalf. Yet the hypocrisy of this "value of human life" is illustrated in Mr. Bush's pro-death penalty stance, his economic policies that favor the wealthy, and most profoundly in his "war on terrorism" and the total disregard for the killing of innocent civilians in the name of the triumph of "good" over "evil." One is led to the conclusion that Mr. Bush values, perhaps not in order of importance, fetuses, embryos, those born wealthy, Christians over members of other religions, and Americans over other nationalities.

"[W]hen examining the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, we saw that Bush's support for the right to life is less absolute than his statements about abortion and the rights of embryos would lead one to expect. ...In allowing government officials to use interrogation methods that the State Department describes as forms of torture or as violations of human rights when used by other nations; in abrogating basic rights to liberty and due process; and in resorting to secret assassinations, Bush has shown that he does not regard human rights as inviolable. He is prepared to take risks with the lives and liberties of innocent people in order to protect America from terrorism. He is, it seems, an advocate of absolute rights on some occasions, and of utilitarian arguments -- of dubious quality -- for overriding such rights on others. His views and actions of freedom and the limits to government lack any clear and consistent philosophical underpinning."

Singer provides a timely critique of America's handling of prisoners of war who, although captured during Bush's declared "war on terrorism," were conveniently labeled "enemy combatants" to avoid the trappings of the Geneva Convention. The sad results already displayed in Afghanistan are being revealed to their extreme as we learn the true value of life afforded to captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

America's goal as outlined in the Project for a New American Century's (PNAC) "Statement of Principles," "signed by Vice President Cheney, as well as by Bush's brother and several members of the present Bush administration, called on the United States 'to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.'" Singer demonstrates how the war on Afghanistan did not meet the criteria of a "just war," but was the decision of an impatient president with no regard for the proportionality principle regarding "benefit" in the face of the risk -- and ultimate result -- of civilian casualties. Just as the failed attempts to get bin Laden were turned to a goal of destroying the Taliban, the unconstitutional war in Iraq was repositioned from a need to rid the world of "evil" Saddam, to a greater "good" of liberating the Iraqi people; no evidence of WMD, no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Bush Doctrine II, permitting preemptive strike without an imminent threat, must be questioned, and do only democracies then have the right to preemptive strike? Exactly what kind of democracy has America become, and are we not subject to the same strike by other countries who have their own principles and interests?

In the final chapter, Singer seeks to define the source of Bush's ethics -- individual, utilitarian, Christian, etc. -- we'll leave his ultimate verdict to the must-readers. His conclusion: "Bush's ethic is woefully inadequate."

Many will view this book as justification to vote President Bush out of office; others should consider it in a broader context. Whether it is four more years of Bush's ethics, or four years of his replacement's, The President of Good & Evil provides a solid foundation on which to evaluate America's domestic and foreign policy, its unending use of military force, its economic and trade practices, its role in the destruction of the environment, its limited support to developing countries and global health issues, its treatment of human rights and civil liberties; all policies that were planted before Bush emerged, nourished by him and his supporters, and which will remain with us long after he is gone. In the context of a country in which 94% of residents believe in God, "In the U.S. religion has a more serious prospect of changing the nature of society than it has in any other developed country."


1. Introduction   1

2. A Single Nation of Justice and Opportunity   9
3. The Culture of Life   34
4. The Freest Nation in the World   63
5. The Power of Faith   90

6. Sharing the World   115
7. War: Afghanistan   143
8. War: Iraq   154
9. Pax Americana   178
10. The Ethics of George W. Bush   201

Sources   227
Acknowledgments   269
Index  271

Peter Singer, The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, Dutton, New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-525-94813-9 - Cloth: 280 pages, $24.95.

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http://www.psinger.com - Peter Singer's Official Website

http://www.progressivethought.org - ProgressiveThought.org: Bulk purchases of political commentaries

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Jan Baughman on Swans (with bio).

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Published June 7, 2004
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