Friday, March 28, 2008

Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Black and White

Peter Singer, the author of such classics as Animal Liberation and The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, wrote a very powerful book in 2004 called The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush. Over and over, President Bush has embraced not only the ideology of cut-and-dried moral thinking but its rhetoric: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and American will call evil by its name," the president said in 2002. Our "moral nation" would go to war (literal and figurative war) with "the axis of evil."

For him, "moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place." And rather than using evil as an adjective and then condemning behavior, Bush has a tendency to use evil as a noun--as Singer says, "as a thing, or a force, something that has a real existence apart from the cruel, callous, brutal, and selfish acts of which human beings are capable." This is not a way of talking about ethics that fits in easily with the diverse modern secular world.

Singer's book is an extended discussion of Bush's own moral philosophy. The author contrasts the president's views on stem-cell research to his position on capital punishment, questioning what the "sanctity of life" actually means to Bush. If you say you care about the legions of children living in poverty, is it ethical to cut services in order to pass tax cuts for corporations? Singer has a knack for contrasting policies that really highlight large moral inconsistencies such as the rhetoric about free trade versus the reality of massive subsidies to industry. The importance of both family and states rights--except in the case of gay marriage. Or--perhaps my favorite: having a brief but messy affair with a presidential intern and lying about it versus lying about why the nation should enter a very long and messy war.

Singer speculates that the president might well be stuck in "conventional morality," the characteristic of teenagers, in which simple moral rules constitute one's moral outlook, and the idea that such rules might conflict hasn't sunk in yet. At the very least, Bush has not thought through the complexities of the issues he is called upon to deal with.

As reviewer Colin McGinn summarizes, "The conventional view of George W. Bush is that, while he is a man of marked intellectual limitations, he is governed by a consistent set of deeply held moral convictions. Singer's book refutes this comforting myth. Bush is a man of sporadically good moral instincts, perhaps..., but he sways inconsistently and opportunistically in the political breeze, and has no idea how to make his beliefs fit coherently together."

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Coming up soon: a review of Glenn Greenwald's 2007 book A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency

1 comment:

OfTroy said...

its not the first time this idea has been put forward.

Mr bush used drugs and alcohol to 'self medicate' as young man.. and while his is sober, he is a 'dry drunk' --he never really change--he is a man trapped with a youth mind and thinking.. (he didn't think war was romantic when he might have to go.. but now, he is envious of the young man going off to far away places, and with the romance of war... (how childlike a way of thinking--and worse, that he is not aware of what he is saying when he says it outloud!

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