[Paleopsych] Philosophy Now: Review of The President of Good and Evil by Peter Singer

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Review of The President of Good and Evil by Peter Singer

    Scott O'Reilly reviews Peter Singer`s review of George W. Bush`s
    statements on ethics.

    Inquiring after the ethics of George W. Bush might seem to many like a
    Herculean task, and possibly doomed to failure, but worth a try
    anyway. Peter Singer, one of the world's best-known philosophers, has
    taken up this daunting challenge in his The President of Good and
    Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, and the result is a superbly
    instructive lesson on the strengths and limits of applying the methods
    of philosophy to current events.

    Immanuel Kant once wrote that "out of the crooked timber of humanity,
    no straight thing was ever made." The thought is worth bearing in mind
    as Singer attempts to apply the sharp edge of logic and sound
    reasoning against the sometimes-twisted reasoning proffered by Bush
    and his administration. As Plato recognized long ago, philosophers are
    rarely kings, and kings are rarely philosophers, hence it might be
    unreasonable from the outset to expect Bush's public utterances and
    policies to conform to any rational understanding or explanation.
    Perhaps Bush is simply a political animal, telling voters whatever
    they want to hear so long as it furthers his acquisition of power. In
    Bush's case we might call this the `Machiavelli from Mayberry'
    conjecture - a working assumption that Bush is a cynical operator with
    the cunning of a fox, and the strength and ferocity of a lion, but who
    attempts to pass himself off as a meek and humble lamb. Singer rejects
    this assumption, deciding to take Bush's pronouncements at face value,
    in effect asking if Bush's words and deeds stand up to philosophical
    scrutiny. In this, Singer is very much performing the role of a modern
    day Socrates, asking common sense questions, applying clear reasoning,
    and using his interlocutors own words as the standard by which they
    are judged. And like Socrates, Singer makes for a rather formidable

    Singer examines the president's public statements and positions on all
    the key issues - tax cuts, environmental policy, stem cell research,
    and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - and he repeatedly uncovers
    glaring contradictions that would appear to undermine not only Bush's
    credibility, but also the coherence of Bush's stated policy
    objectives. For instance, he zeroes in on the administration's
    extraordinarily inconsistent - if not duplicitous - conduct
    surrounding the march to war against Iraq. As Singer notes, early in
    the Bush administration key figure such as Colin Powell and
    Condoleezza Rice went on record saying that Saddam had been disarmed
    and contained. Within months the administration had flip-flopped, with
    all the key figures pushing the position that Saddam had stockpiles of
    WMD that posed an imminent threat requiring a pre-emptive invasion.
    Singer demonstrates how the Bush administration prematurely pulled out
    U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq and then failed to secure a second
    U.N. Security Council resolution that would explicitly authorize
    force. Failing to see the U.N. weapons inspection process through
    meant that the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq failed to meet the
    criteria for a Just War (according to which the use of force is only a
    last resort when all other means have failed). But it was also, as
    Singer points out, a violation of international law, the U.N. Charter,
    and the U.S. Constitution all at the same time. Ironically, Bush
    argued that in failing to provide a second resolution authorizing
    force the U.N was making itself irrelevant, blithely ignoring the fact
    that it was the Bush administration's unilateral actions that were
    undermining the U.N.

    In the end, the U.S. would fail to find Saddam's alleged WMD, but when
    confronted with this fact Bush reacted by accusing his critics of
    `historical revisionism.'

    The shifting rationales, contradictory pronouncements, and legal
    doubletalk convinced many observers that they had entered some
    Orwellian alternative universe where a ubiquitous Catch-22 clause is
    forever trumping the laws of logic and sound reasoning. If no engineer
    or architect could expect to ignore the principles of geometry and
    have their work hold up in the real world, how could the Bush
    administration so consistently disregard the standards of cogency in
    the pursuit of statecraft? Perhaps the answer is that they couldn't,
    and that the troubled occupation of Iraq serves as something of a
    reductio ad absurdumon the Bush administration's `faith-based' foreign

    Singer takes the Bush administration to task for allowing ideology to
    trump empiricism and sound reasoning. In a particularly effective
    passage Singer cites a story by the 19th century English mathematician
    and philosopher William Clifford, which illustrates the perils of
    basing ones ethics or actions on belief. Clifford asks us to imagine a
    shipowner who knows his ship could do with a costly inspection and
    repairs, but sincerely believes that Providence will see the ship and
    its passengers through on a difficult voyage. Clifford argues that the
    shipowner's belief was not acquired "by honestly earning it in patient
    investigation, but by stifling his doubts." When the ship sinks its
    owner's guilt is not absolved by the sincerity of his faith; indeed he
    is culpable precisely for substituting belief in place of practical

    Singer's point is hard to miss. Even if Bush was entirely sincere in
    his belief that Saddam possessed WMD, that in no way excuses a general
    pattern whereby the Bush administration ignored evidence that might
    contradict its preconceptions. Singer isn't the only philosopher who
    finds an ideological style of leadership troubling. Karl Popper argued
    that political and social progress arises not from adhering to
    timeless principles, unchallenged assumptions, or sacred scriptures,
    but from trial and error. This is a tremendously simple but powerful
    idea. It suggests that political truth isn't something a farsighted,
    ethically-infallible leader intuits from on high, but rather the hard
    won achievement of putting ideas and institutions to the test and
    seeing which ones hold up and serve the common good. Time and again,
    Singer argues, Bush eschews this trial and error approach,
    particularly in the case of stem cell research, and by ignoring
    scientific evidence in the case of Global Warming.

    Singer examines Bush's ethics from a number of points of view -
    Utilitarianism, a Judeo-Christian value system, and a Libertarian
    perspective - and in every case fails to find a consistent framework
    that would make sense of Bush's moral reasoning. Turning to psychology
    Singer speculates that Bush's sometimes-rigid adherence to the `letter
    of the law' (but not its spirit) indicates that the president is stuck
    at what Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg termed the Conventional
    Stage of morality, which he describes as, "an orientation toward
    authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of social order." Kohlberg
    describes this as the level of moral development most often associated
    with 13 year olds. (The idea that the president of the United States
    has not yet graduated to the Post-conventional level of moral
    reasoning associated with Kantian-style universal principles is a
    troubling conjecture, but it might explain a lot).

    The conclusion Singer finds most plausible regarding George W. Bush's
    ethics may be the most disturbing. Singer notes that a high number of
    key Bush administration officials are disciples of a philosopher
    called Leo Strauss. Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago
    until his death in 1973, argued that many of the great ancient
    philosophers, particularly the Greeks, wrote in a kind of code. Only a
    select intellectual elite were capable of absorbing the esoteric
    meaning latent in the texts, while the hoi polloi took everything at
    face value. The Straussians believe that the masses are simply not
    equipped to handle the often-grim truths that underlie political and
    world affairs (remember the old saying: there are two things you never
    want to see being made, sausages and legislation). But according to
    Singer the Straussians go even further, suggesting that sometimes the
    `aristocratic gentlemen' charged with governing a polity lack the
    sophistication to handle the truth. In such cases the elite advisors
    must be prepared to mislead not just the masses with noble lies, but
    also the leader. Singer points out that this might explain why Bush's
    false assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Niger
    stayed in his State of the Union address while other agencies like the
    CIA and the State Department regarded it as untrue. It might also
    explain why Bush appeared on Polish television telling viewers that
    the U.S. had discovered mobile weapons labs in Iraq, a story disproven
    weeks before. However, the idea that Bush could claim in the presence
    of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that "we gave him [Saddam] a
    chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in,"
    strikes Singer as almost too bizarre for belief - Bush had, after all,
    recalled the inspectors himself before their job was completed. Singer
    goes so far as to speculate that Bush was intoxicated, on drugs, or
    perhaps out of his mind when he uttered such obviously preposterous
    statements. But Singer quickly discounts such explanations, finding it
    far more plausible that the president may in fact be a patsy or a
    puppet - with the Machiavellians pulling the strings on the man from

    Emerson once wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little
    minds." Great statesmen often exhibit tremendous contradiction in
    their personalities and their policies. But what happens when a given
    leader repeatedly utters statements that contradict their previous
    statement, as well as reality? A disciple of Machiavelli might argue
    that this is what leaders are often called to do for the public good.
    For instance, most of us would probably agree with Winston Churchill
    that, "occasionally the truth needs a bodyguard of lies." Singer,
    however, makes a persuasive case that with George W. Bush those
    supposedly guarding the truth have mugged it instead. If so, it is
    worth remembering another thought from Churchill: "A democratic people
    can face any adversity with fortitude, provided they believe their
    leaders are leveling with them, and not living in a fool's paradise."

    Scott O'Reilly is a contributor to The Great Thinkers A-Z (2004) and
    writes a monthly column of political humor for Compass Magazine .

    The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bushby Peter
    Singer, 2004 (Dutton, $25/Granta £8.99 paperback) 1-86207-693-6. This
    book is at the Philosophy Now [22]Bookstore.


   22. http://www.philosophynow.org/bookstore.htm#1862076936

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