THE PRESIDENT OF GOOD AND EVIL, The Ethics of George W. Bush, by Peter Singer. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004. 281 pages, Sources,index. Hardcover; $24.95. ISBN 0-525-94813-9.

This book is not a "Bush basher." It is a reasoned critique of the ethical reasoning of George W. Bush, written near the end of his first term as president. Peter Singer, a well known (and controversial) philosopher, has performed a public service in this political discourse, analyzing the actions of the Republican administration in the light of their public arguments. It is written without invectives, and in a number of cases praises, or at least agrees, with Bush's reasonings and actions.

Most writers on ethics assume that there are only three foundational grounds, deontological (find the rule and follow it), pragmatic (measure the expected outcomes and choose the best, and virtue (making a decision based on what you perceive yourself to be). Singer makes the assumption that a person of character ought to follow only one of these principles, and follow it consistently. He shows that, in the case of George W. Bush, that this is not so. But I am not sure any of us follows only one of these principles consistently. I know I do not. Bush uses utilitarian arguments to justify civilian deaths in the wars he has started; deontological arguments on the stem cell issue. I do not see this as incoherence; Singer does.

No president in recent years, says Singer, has spoken so often about moral issues, usually framing them in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Singer does not disapprove of this, but he does claim that a serious discussion of Bush's philosophy is therefore in order. Singer's approach is to assume what Bush says is what he means, and ask if the positions he promotes are coherent and defensible.

Many issues are addressed in this book, the Iraq war, the place of the U.N., the environment, capital punishment, the powers of the Federal Government, gay rights, citizen rights, deprivations of liberty and due process, and others. In this review I will comment on three of them, stem cell research, citizen rights, and the place of religious arguments in the public square.

(1) Stem cell research, for Bush, rests on three questions; (1) Are the frozen embryos human life, (2) are they, therefore, worthy of protection, and (3) if they are to be destroyed, should they be used for a greater good (research). Singer agrees with Bush that the first answer is certainly "yes." The disagreement comes in question (2); Bush, apparently using an unstated religious argument, that to be human is to possess a "soul," makes a leap to a "yes" answer by telling us that every embryo is unique, but the logic between uniqueness and "worthy of protection" is never explained. Singer points out that in our country over 3,000,000 embryos, all presumably "unique," perish every year from natural causes, usually failure to implant. If all those blastocysts have souls, he observes, and if innocents attain heaven, then heaven must be mostly populated by persons who perished before birth. ??? Could be.

Singer believes that Bush's "yes" answer to (2) is based on his unargued assumption that to be "human" is sufficient to make a life "precious." This assumption is obviously his religious belief; Bush holds (speech, August 2000) that human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. But he also gives a secular argument -- it is his obligation, as president, to encourage a respect for human life. Singer's disagreement with this argument is interesting, but hardly persuasive. He argues that, since embryos cannot (yet) be held morally responsible, they are not yet "persons." But a child just born would also qualify here!

In sum, while I disagree with the president's stem cell decision, I do not see him making that decision either incoherently or solely on the grounds of his religious beliefs. Singer, of course, does.

(2) On citizen rights. Singer observes that while Bush cries "freedom" in nearly every public address, promotion of freedom does not seem to be a high priority. (pages 87, 88) "When individuals make decisions that he (GWB) thinks are wrong, he will try to prevent them ... when states pass laws that allow ... freedoms that (he) thinks they ought not to have ... The only coherent philosophy consistent with these decisions is one that ranks the specific values ... above the values of individual freedom and states' right. “ That quotation correctly focuses the issue. Again, while disagreeing with certain GWB decisions (Oregon's “right to die” law being one), I do not see Bush deciding incoherently. In the end, values matter. Some values, even those not universally shared, are to be ranked at least as important as “freedom,” else freedom becomes simply license.

(3) Chapter 5 of this book,"The Power of Faith," is foundational. (page 91) "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 ... and to use it as a basis for policy on issues that affect others ... who do not share such beliefs.”

Singer begins by trying to understand Bush's faith (quite impossible, of course, for a non-Christian to do). He makes some reasonable points, beginning with a description of William Clifford's well-known 19th century essay on belief ethics, and his example of the ship owner who “trusted in Providence” (the ship sank with great loss of life) rather than seeing to the necessary inspection and repair before embarkation. Clifford wrote: “He had acquired his belief not by earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” He let the loss of the passengers (insurance paid his ship's loss) hang on his sincere, but unquestioned, faith rather than doing his job. Bush, Singer argues, shows no evidence that he has wrestled with faith's critical issues, he simply, without questioning, accepts it. Singer's unease here is understandable of course; he is a Christian outsider. But we only can know Bush's public statements; what his inner “wrestlings and prayer life are is a private matter. Singer oversteps his knowledge base here. He cannot know what he claims to know about Bush's private life.

But Singer does make some telling points. (page 99). “The Islamic militant who believes he is doing the will of God when he flies a plane ... into the World Trade Center is just as much a person of faith as the Christian ... who pickets an abortion clinic. ... Faith cannot tell us who is right and who is wrong ... In the absence of a willingness to offer reasons, evidence, or arguments ... there is no progress to be made. If we try to dissuade people from being ... terrorists, not by persuading them to be more thoughtful and reflective about their religious beliefs, but by encouraging them to switch from one unquestioned religious faith to another, we are fighting with our hands tied behind our backs. Much better, therefore, to insist that there is an ethical obligation to base one's views about life on evidence and sound reasoning.”

Singer quotes again from Clifford: (page 100) “ ... how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I, myself, am careless about it, when I believe things because I want to believe them, and when they are comforting and pleasant? ... The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat ... .”

Singer then begins (page 101) a good discussion of religion in public life. A virtue of a democratic society is that it offers peaceful ways of resolving controversial issues. But the founders did not choose a model where those who won elections could then exercise absolute power. Such a model could, for instance, if Christian Fundamentalism were to come to power, enact a law to execute persons who performed homosexual acts (the Chalcedon Foundation has that as a goal). Or if Baptists were to become a majority, a law could be passed to deny all baptism modes except immersion, with state sanctions eas enforcement. In defense of these actions, in this perverted model of democracy, no other reasons need be given except "It is God's Will.” Such a model is a theocratic democracy; it is not the model the founders envisaged. (page 102) “They wanted limits on the power of the majority. They enacted a constitution protecting freedom of expression and opinion ... Judging that better decisions emerge from open discussion, they created public arenas ... They did not want adherents of one religion, no matter how large a majority they might be, to impose their religious beliefs on the remainder. “

There must be, Singer argues, a structure for discussion in which everyone can take part. When people engage in these public conversations, they should seek to justify their views to others – particularly others who do not share their religious persuasions. Reasons that can appeal to all, not only to our own belief community, should be used, otherwise the debate implicitly divides society into different communities.

The following quotation is from page 104:

"Suppose someone says, "We should clone human beings because aliens have told us to do so." We would, if we were to take this ridiculous claim seriously, ask for evidence that these aliens really exist, that they have told us to clone humans, and that there is some reason why we should do what they tell us to do. Suppose that the response to our questions is, "I have encountered these aliens in moments of deep despair, and they have entered into my head and my heart, and I love them and know I can trust them. Open your hearts to them, and you too will come to love them and see that they are right." If we are told that no evidence for the existence of the aliens will be offered, and we should take these claims on faith, we would, rightly, refuse to pay them any further attention. So suppose, then, that someone tells us that human embryos should not be destroyed because "human life is a sacred 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. That answer may be more widely held than the justification that the bizarre Raelian sect has given for setting out to produce a human clone, but as a justification for public policy within the sphere of public reason, it fares no better.

This sounds as if religious arguments are ruled out of discussion. Not so, says Singer. He continues:

"At this point those seeking to extend the influence of religion into politics will object that to define public reason in a manner that excludes appeals to religious faith is to do what the theocrats do, but in reverse: to impose a secular framework on public life, thereby unfairly excluding religious perspectives. This sounds like a strong argument, until we realize that it is not religious beliefs, as such, that are excluded from the realm of public reason, but methods of reaching those beliefs that are not accessible to public justification of a kind that we accept in every other area of decision-making. There is no reason or principle why claims about the existence of God, and what he or she wishes us to do, should not be part of public political debate. The problem arises only when religious belief is put into a realm that protects it from the usual rules of scrutiny."

Singer provides an example of this:

"If someone tells us that embryo research should be prohibited because human life is a sacred gift from our Creator, then it is reasonable to ask how we know this. If the answer is that it is written in scripture, we need to know why those particular writings are to be believed. If this depends on historical claims about the origins of these scriptures, then experts on the texts may be called in to consider whether these claims are sound. ..and so on. If all these questions can be given answers that are open to the usual rules of critical scrutiny, public justification is satisfied. But if, at some point, further inquiry is cut off with an appeal to faith, then the position is not one that other reasonable people have any grounds to accept, and the original recommendation for the prohibition of embryo research has not been defended within the framework of public reason.

It is not the content of the belief-whether it is about God, or gods, or evil spirits, or curses-that determines whether it is a matter of public reason, but the way in which the belief is held and defended. The great medieval Christian philosophers, like Anselm and Aquinas, thought that the existence of God could be proved by rational argument. Whatever we think of. their arguments, at least they were concerned to justify their beliefs in terms of what we now call public reason. It is only those who scorn reason who exclude themselves from the field of reasonable public debate.

Singer then writes of a second level argument:

Appeals to people's religious sensitivities are also not excluded from the sphere of public reason. In debating the proposal to allow federal funds to be used for research that destroys embryos, it is reasonable to assert that millions of Americans believe that only God has the right to take innocent human life, and they will be deeply disturbed if their taxes are used to kill embryos. That is a claim about a matter of fact that can be investigated, and weighed in the balance against competing claims, like the potential of stem cells to cure diseases. From the standpoint of public reason, the fact of offense is the issue, not how well grounded the offense might be. {Although John Stuart Mill and other defenders of freedom have argued that mere offense should not, in the absence of more specific harm, be a ground for infringing individual liberty, once we grant that a risk of offense to some justifies restricting the liberty of others, we have introduced a sweeping argument for prohibiting any kind of behavior, public or private. What offends people is not fixed. People can learn to be more tolerant, and that is a better solution than restricting the liberty of others.)"

Finally, Singer speaks of religious freedom:

The suggestion that public policy be debated within the framework of public justification does not seek to restrict freedom of expression or religion. People should, of course, be free to express their religious beliefs, to worship as they choose, and to seek, without coercion, to convert others. The issue is not one of who may say what, but of what reasons should be given weight when we decide issues of public policy, and make laws that affect all members of society. If someone wants to base a policy recommendation on religious beliefs that they hold on faith, they are free to do so, but the rest of us are also free to ignore them-and whether we ourselves are religious or not, we should ignore them, or encourage them to attempt to restate their views in ways that appeal to those who do not share their religious faith. In doing so, we are acting on a sound understanding of what makes for a well..functioning democratic society.

"Some will think that public reason is a quaint relic of Enlightenment ideas about reason and progress, properly rejeOted in the postmodern world in which we now live. They will say it is naive to believe that anyone decides anything on the basis of reason, and will deny that there is any basis for privileging reason and argument above religious faith, or belief in witch doctors, or oracles, or any other way in which people might reach decisions about what to do. But those who say this do not fully think out the alternatives. There are methods of reaching decisions that we use every day, and would not want to do without. We do not want the police to go before the courts saying that they need no evidence that the accused committed the crimes of which he is accused, because they have faith that he did, and faith needs no evidence to support it. We want physicians who have studied what does or does not help sick people-and if we consult alternative healers, we look for evidence that their therapies really work. If we abandon the assumption that reason, evidence, and argument can lead to better decisions, more innocent people will be jailed and more sick people will die. So those who want public justification to fit within the same broad framework are not imposing some narrow, sectional set of standards on the debate. They are seeking standards of argument that everyone uses all the time.

"Others will argue that even if we can agree on standards of reasoning for much of everyday life, we cannot prove the truth of any ethical principle. Therefore, since ethics is beyond reasoning and public justification, it is no less acceptable to get one's ethics from religion than it is to get it from one's culture, or one's subjective beliefs. In fact, many Americans believe that the only alternatives to deriving moral judgments from religion are moral nihilism or moral relativism. . . . But morality does not have to be religious in order to be real and important. Each of us is concerned about our own well-being, or the satisfaction of our wants and desires. When we think ethically, we should do so from an impartial perspective, from which we recognize that our own wants and desires are no more significant than the wants and desires of anyone else. To base judgments about the rights and wrongs of an action on the impact it will have on the welfare of those affected by it is to base ethics on something that is real and tangible. Because it is based on something that we all want for ourselves, coupled with an argument for a form of impartiality in our reasoning, it meets the standards of public justification.

That is why I agree with Bush that it is appropriate to make moral judgments, and that it is possible to educate-not indoctrinate- children to do so. We would be educating them in putting them- selves in the place of others. When they are trying to decide what to do, we would encourage them to imagine what it would be like to be those who are harmed by their actions. This is, of course, a form of the Golden Rule, a principle that has been taught by all the major religions, and by secular ethicists, both ancient and modern, as well. Naturally, there is much more to be said on this topic, and there are alternative views of ethics that are defensible. While secular philosophers may disagree about what is the right thing to do, the same is true of religious thinkers, even among those who are Christians.

"Bush is aware of the need to broaden his appeal beyond those who share his religious beliefs, and for this reason we may feel that his frequent references to God are innocuous, and it is petty to read too much into them. When he lays out reasons for his policies, he does not rely exclusively on religious grounds. In his speech on the use of embryos for research he states his belief that life is a sacred gift from the Creator, but he also tells us of his concerns about "a culture that devalues life." That phrase suggests a link between permitting federal funds to be used for destroying embryos, and a more general loss of respect for life that we would all oppose, so it is an argument within the framework of public reason.

"Not all leading members of Bush's party are so careful. Tom Delay, the House majority leader, and thus the most powerful Republican after Bush, has said that "Only Christianity offers away to live in response to the realities that we find in this world-only Christianity. " Part of what Delay means by this can be gleaned from the suggestion he made that the tragic shootings at Columbine High School occurred "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud."

I note here that DeLay's Christianity has prompted him to award "Doctor of the Year" awards to those doctors who are willing to make a sizable donation to the Republican Party. What I cannot understand is the mentality of a person who would pay for, and accept such an award and then brag about it. I sure would not wish to engage him or her as MY physician, for there is something in the process that really smells!

I put such morally-challenged people, along with DeLay, in my personal "Hall of Shame." They are easily identified with a Google search.

But back to the good Professor Singer:

"Bush has said that "We ought not to worry about faith in our society. We ought to welcome it into our programs. We ought to welcome it in the welfare system. We ought to recognize the healing power of faith in our society. " This has caused concern even for some religious organizations, at least the more broad-minded of them. The Baptist Joint Committee, for example, decided that the president needed to be reminded that he had been elected "the political leader of the whole nation, not one segment of the religious community. " There are real grounds for fearing that using the presidential platform to make religious statements will lead to the promotion of religious faith in general and, more specifically, to the promotion of the religion favored by the president and other leading members of his party. Then the separation of church and state will have broken down, and we will have a society in which non-Christians can no longer feel they are equal participants.”

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson
retired physicist, IBMer and Stephen Minister
Mancos, Colorado

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