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.
You’ve called George Bush an ethical “adolescent.” What do you mean by that?
Lawrence Kohlberg argues that most people go through certain stages of moral development. Using his categories, and looking at some of the moral judgments Bush makes–not so much the substance of the judgments as the way in which he reaches his judgments–it seems to me that Bush is at a stage that is typical of adolescent boys. Most, though not all of them, later go on to a more reflective view of morality. Bush appears not to have done so.
The question of who bears responsibility for the Abu Ghraib prison scandals is one you tackle briefly in the preface to the paperback edition, saying that President Bush made “scapegoats of those at the bottom of the military ladder.” How did the President’s moral leadership contribute to the abuses at Abu Ghraib? To what extent is he responsible?
First, the President is responsible because he began the war that led to the need for Americans to run prisons in Iraq. Obviously that’s a situation in which the potential for abuse exists. Second, the President appears to have allowed his subordinates to set the standards for interrogation procedures. He did not use the authority of his office to insist on, and remind all Americans serving in Iraq of, the importance of strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. Indeed, in detaining prisoners without trial at Guantánamo Bay, he himself violated one aspect of the Geneva Conventions. It is not surprising that other Americans under his command should have violated other aspects of them.
The question consuming politicians concerned about our position in Iraq is “What now?” What is the most ethically sound course for America to undertake in Iraq?
To hand over essential functions to the United Nations and get out. I think the presence of American troops is making it more difficult, not less difficult, for the interim Iraqi government to establish its credibility. It provides an excuse for radicals to refuse to participate in the democratic process that we would all like to see.
You talk extensively about President Bush’s religious beliefs and their impact on his leadership and policy-making, saying that some of his words come “straight out of apocalyptic Christianity.” What is the proper role for a President’s religion to play in governing?
None. We live in a multicultural society, and we should keep religion out of state affairs.
Just this week, on the third anniversary of President Bush’s decision to limit stem-cell research to the seventy-eight lines already in existence, First Lady Laura Bush defended her husband and urged the public not to take the ethical issues involved “too lightly.” As a bioethicist, what do you see as the ramifications of Bush’s policy on stem cells?
I think Bush’s policy is misguided, but for an explanation of why that is the case, your readers will have to take a look at the relevant chapter of my book. The ramifications are that research in this promising area will proceed more slowly than it would have if federal funds were available for it. Fortunately, several other nations do not restrict stem-cell research in the way that Bush does, so the area will develop anyway.
Recent dialogue about morality has centered around the Bush Administration, but what about the obligations of regular Americans? Do American citizens have a duty to vote in 2004?
Absolutely. The low voter turnout in America is a disgrace, and undermines the nation’s claim to be a great democracy.