In his second inaugural address as Governor of Texas, George W. Bush declared, “Some people think it’s inappropriate to make moral judgments anymore. Not me.” Among those who agree with the President is noted ethicist Peter Singer, author of The President of Good and Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush, released in paperback in August. In his book, Singer, the Decamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, evaluates the moral calculus behind Bush’s decisions on issues from gay marriage to the war in Iraq.
Singer is no stranger to controversy. A leader in the animal rights movement, Singer advocates the moral equality of humans and animals. His previous books, including Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, have been translated into fifteen languages, earning him critics around the world. He has also written about the permissibility of euthanasia and infanticide.
The professor’s views earned him critics on the right long before he applied an ethical lens to the actions of the President. When Singer’s appointment to Princeton’s faculty was announced in 1998, billionaire alumnus and presidential candidate Steve Forbes pledged not to give a dime to the school until he left the faculty. Nonetheless, Singer is still advising students and teaching “Practical Ethics,” one of the most popular courses at the university. While the debate over values continues on the presidential campaign trail, The President of Good and Evil offers an accessible look at George W. Bush’s ethics. Singer recently spoke to The Nation about his book and the increasing prominence of morality in American political dialogue.
As a philosopher without training in political science or foreign affairs, what prompted you to write about American politics? How did your colleagues react to your book?
I don’t see the book as about American politics. George W. Bush constantly makes statements about what he sees as right, or good, and what he sees as wrong, or evil. Those are ethical judgments. Often they are backed by ethical arguments–on why it is wrong to destroy human embryos, on what is a fair tax cut, or why America should not sign the Kyoto Protocol. And, of course, on the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve spent the last thirty-five years studying ethical arguments, so writing about Bush’s ethics falls squarely within my area of expertise.
Of course the book gets into American politics now and again; how could it not? But my point is that no other specialists in ethics were considering the ethical arguments Bush puts forward. That fact was what prompted me to write the book. My colleagues have been extremely supportive of my doing so.
As the campaign for the presidency picks up steam, discourse about values has taken center stage. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt recently called on progressives to resist giving the right a monopoly on values. Why do you think values have become such a central part of our political dialogue?
Because America is polarized about values. The Christian fundamentalists try to own the entire field, by saying that their opponents are immoral or unethical. But those who are not Christian fundamentalists simply hold different values. It is important to get that message across.