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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / current events

The President of Good and Evil

Peter Singer

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To purchase The President of Good and Evil

Title: The President of Good and Evil
Author: Peter Singer
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 225 pages
Availability: The President of Good and Evil - US
The President of Good and Evil - UK
The President of Good and Evil - Canada
  • US subtitle: The Ethics of George W. Bush
  • UK subtitle: Taking George W. Bush Seriously

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Our Assessment:

B+ : not much that is new, but a useful perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 1/5/2004 Dennis Altman
The Independent A 21/5/2004 John Gray
New Scientist . 20/3/2004 Mike Holderness
New Statesman F 19/4/2004 Michael Lind
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/4/2004 Paul Mattick
Sydney Morning Herald . 22/5/2004 Leslie Cannold
The Washington Post . 14/3/2004 Colin McGinn

  From the Reviews:
  • "In taking Bush's rhetoric seriously, Singer reminds us that politicians act out of conviction as much as out of expediency, persuading themselves that what is convenient is also moral. In this they are no different to the rest of us, and one might ask how fair is it to demand consistency." - Dennis Altman, The Age

  • "A quasi-religious faith in reason shines out from every page of The President of Good and Evil. In this brilliant and indispensable book, Singer "takes George W Bush seriously" and analyses and demolishes the arguments used by the President for his policies." - John Gray, The Independent

  • "The result should disturb everyone. Some responses to this book will be depressingly predictable; particularly those that focus on Singer's religious scepticism. (...) But the most upsetting feature of this book is the realisation that nowadays merely recounting with grim clarity what those in power say on the record is likely to be met with accusations of extremist alarmism. Whether your concern is with research regulation, climate change, HIV, hunger or empire, read this and recoil." - Mike Holderness, New Scientist

  • "The sloppiness of such thinking is matched by the incoherence of the book, which appears to have been hastily spliced together rather than written. (...) Like a number of other recent books, The President of Good and Evil provides troubling evidence that the bad habits of the blogosphere are corrupting the world of print discourse. As in a blog, caches of documentary material are dumped between rambling riffs of opinion." - Michael Lind, New Statesman

  • "Much of Singer's discussion proceeds on the basis of common sense (.....) But Singer also calls on elements of theory to develop his analyses (.....) Singer is a generous critic. In discussing Bush's reverence for life, evidenced in his opposition to stem cell research, he constructs the most plausible arguments possible against the sacrifice of unwanted embryos, to demonstrate convincingly how unsustainable they are." - Paul Mattick, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While I admit to not always finding Singer's arguments in this latest work persuasive (...), I remain an ardent admirer of the forthright way he makes his case. Just as a query or counter-argument to one of his claims began forming in my mind, I would find he had anticipated it and, having posed the problem himself, methodically set out to answer it." - Leslie Cannold, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The bulk of the book is a litany of moral inconsistencies and failures, of persistent hypocrisy and doublethink. Singer's method is to contrast Bush's enunciations of principle with the realities of his policies, finding repeatedly that political expediency triumphs over declarations of principle. The list is by now familiar, but worth assembling. (...) Bush does seem sincere enough in his moral opinions, contrary to an entirely cynical interpretation of his words and actions, but there is an impression of callow simple-mindedness in his moral sentiments; at the least, he has not thought through the complexities of the issues he is called upon to deal with." - Colin McGinn, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Singer happens to share the same birthday as the 43rd American president, the junior George Bush, (6 July 1946). Many people find one or the other (or both of them) hard to take very seriously, considering Bush a man of very limited abilities and intelligence, whose policies are designed first and foremost to benefit large corporations and the very wealthy, while Singer is often seen as an (im)moral extremist who believes we should be more concerned with the rights of animals than those of many humans, particularly the disabled and debilitated.
       These preconceptions are hard to ignore, but Singer proves a relatively open-minded analyst, willing to give his subject the benefit of some doubt and considering many of the issues from a variety of vantage points. But try as he might to find an underlying vision or organising principles, Bush's supposed morality remains an unpredictable muddle.
       In his introduction Singer notes that

     Given the global significance of Bush's view of right and wrong, it may seem surprising that philosophers have paid little attention to his ethics.
       The President of Good and Evil is an examination of Bush's ethics, with Singer "Taking George W. Bush Seriously" (as the British sub-title has it) -- or at least taking his pronouncements seriously ("at face value", he puts it). He considers how defensible Bush's positions are -- on their own, as well as in comparison to the actions taken by the president and his administration --, as well as whether or not there is any coherent moral vision guiding the president. It does not make for a pretty or reassuring picture, as Singer convincingly demonstrates the president's moral and intellectual inconstancy (and suggests some of the consequences thereof).
       Singer notes that Bush gives the impression of being much-concerned with morality -- and specifically with 'evil', a word mentioned in "about 30 percent of all the speeches he gave between the time he took office and June 16, 2003" (using it as a noun far more often (914 times) than as an adjective (182)). Evil is, of course, a pretty safe thing to decry and be opposed to, but as it turns out Bush isn't very clear (or morally consistent) in his definitions of and responses to it.
       Singer covers many of the president's actions, beginning with what was the pre-September 2001 focus of his interest: tax cuts. Singer considers Bush policies and ambitions such as the elimination of the estate tax and allowing so-called faith-based organisations to receive federal funds, as well the (moral) consequences of Bush's tax cuts. Many of these examples and arguments likely won't impress a large number of Americans, who tend to see this question only in terms of: low taxes are good, high taxes bad without worrying too much about the finer points, but he raises a number of points of interest, especially in light of Bush's claims regarding the opportunities that must be afforded to all citizens.
       Other economic arguments are those regarding free trade and foreign aid (which Singer also addressed in his recent One World). Bush's anti-free trade actions -- most notably his patently illegal steel tariffs and his various farm subsidy programmes -- have disappointed even his political allies, and Singer considers the moral aspects of these actions too. Singer has always been a proponent of wealth-transfer to the needy (suggesting that individuals in wealthy nations should do so privately too), and so his position on foreign aid -- where the US lags far behind almost all of its developed counterparts -- is not a surprising one; this, however, is one of the instances where political inertia plays also plays a role and gives Bush something of an excuse for his (in)action: it has always been thus, and foreign aid will always be a hard sell to American taxpayers. Nevertheless, a reminder of some of the facts is useful -- such as
The Bush administration spends more on susidizing its 25,000 cotton growers than it provides in aid, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, for all of Africa.
       Here and elsewhere these actions with international ramifications are particularly noteworthy because of the leadership role the United States has claimed in the international community after the events of September 2001 (a marked contrast to Bush's vision of the world before -- but one that Singer grants him is understandable given the arguably changed circumstances). Again and again Singer finds examples of the Bush administration preaching democratic principles -- and then flouting them. From the administration's backing away from the Kyoto Protocol (a preliminary attempt to deal with global climate change) to the outrageous handling of the question of the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration has frequently moved away from participating in the international community in any meaningful way. In particular, its insistence that the ICC not have jurisdiction over American citizens is morally highly questionable -- as well as politically foolish. As Singer notes, the completely indefensible illegal detention of hundreds of foreign nationals at Guantánamo Bay (and the tribunals before which those who are thought to have committed any actual offenses are to be tried) make for a disturbing contrast to the American position regarding the ICC -- and strikes many foreigners as what it is: sheer hypocrisy.
       There are valid American concerns regarding possible abuses under the ICC, but Bush's solution -- one system for Americans, another for citizens of the rest of the world -- is the most radical and insupportable. Coupled with the treatment of those who are (supposedly) suspected terrorists and the like, particularly at Guantánamo Bay, Bush loses nearly all moral authority. Even the claim of desperate measures in desperate times -- America has to do what it has to do -- rings weak, especially considering Bush's grand pronouncements, and his demands of the standards other nations must live up to.
       Separate chapters deal with the American-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, different situations raising different issues. Regarding Afghanistan, Singer believes that it was not "a war of last resort", the administration rushing into conflict before exploring all the options, while regarding Iraq Singer finds a vast number of ethical problems, from how information about the so-called weapons of mass destruction was presented (there being at the beginning of the war, it is now apparent, essentially no reliable evidence that any still existed) to the attempted use of the UN to provide legal (and moral) cover for the toppling of Saddam Hussein to issues of sovereignty. In addition, Singer voices concern over how the military operations were carried out, and the concern (or rather: lack thereof) regarding civilian casualties.
       The sanctity of human life is a factor in many of the issues Singer raises. Detractors may argue that, for example, civilian casualties are unavoidable, and that compared to the carnage of the Second World War and other conflicts, the innocent bystanders in Afghanistan and Iraq got off fairly well. But the evidence -- not least among it the indifference of the American authorities, who can't even be bothered to keep track of Iraqi and Afghan deaths (military and civilian) in these conflicts -- does suggest that Bush hasn't been particularly concerned by the death of non-Americans. (Among the most interesting questions about the decisions of whether or not to go to war is one that's rarely mentioned: not how many Americans Bush was willing to sacrifice for these ends, but how many Iraqis (and Afghans).)
       Because Bush claims to believe in the sanctity of human life, he is particularly vulnerable on the question of civilian casualties. And Singer also discusses Bush's position on capital punishment (he's all for it), again at odds with his valuing of human life. (Singer understands the differences in lives at issue, and is willing to consider arguments why, for example, a murderer might be sentenced to die and an embryo be legally protected but finds specifically in Bush's statements and actions irreconcilable confusion.) Most interesting is the discussion of Bush's stem-cell research policy, and his whole attitude towards embryos, an incoherent policy (dealing with an admittedly very complex issue) that has greatly slowed research in a promising field.
       Much of this material is (wearyingly) familiar, and readers might be tempted to dismiss it as a collection of a politician's inconsistent and often insupportable actions -- the sort of collection one could make, if one dug deep enough, from the dregs of any politician's career. It might be considered politics as usual -- after all, many recent Bush-predecessors (notably Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton) dabbled in the morally highly dubious. But Bush stands apart both because of how inconsistent his words and his actions are (while, all the while, he claims to be a moral authority figure) and the long-lasting effects of his actions, from his tax-cuts to the terrible precendet set by his military interventions and his treatment of non-American terror suspects.
       The inconsistency of Bush's morality is what is perhaps most worrying (because it also means it is unpredictable). Singer concludes by trying to determine what Bush's guiding moral principles are -- is he most concerned with individual rights ? is he a utilitarian ? is his ethic simply Christian ? -- but finds that there is no clear rationale or ethical foundation to be found. Singer finally suggests that Bush's ethic is intuitive -- gut reaction driving him. It's plausible -- and disturbing.
       Singer also suggests that Bush is morally retarded (as he puts it: had an "arrested moral development"). Bush appears to be stuck at the moral-level of the average thirteen-year-old: with "an orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order." This fits the picture of the White House under this administration -- secretive, valuing loyalty over almost all else, and focussed on literal over actual truth.
       Bush's firm belief in that he knows right from wrong and good from evil informs his decisions -- and apparently appeals to (and convinces) a significant part of the American population. As Singer shows here, however, in the details -- even the roughest ones -- Bush has displayed a striking inconsistency, sending mixed messages wherever he goes. The costs of this muddled morality are high, both abroad, where America can currently hardly be looked upon as a credible moral authority (but rather is seen only in terms of its military might), as well as domestically, where Bush's actions and policies look to have long-term effects that undermine many of his stated ambitions and claims.
       Familiar though much of this material is, Singer presents it well and fairly compactly, and his exercise of considering Bush's statements and actions from an ethical perspective is a valuable one. Singer does a fair job of addressing the ethical questions from all possible angles, including considering what justifications there may be for Bush's actions. On many positions Singer is very certain of what is ethical (he finds the concern about embryos quite baffling, for example, noting, among other things, that millions are lost annually (and generally naturally) in the US alone) and readers may disagree; the overwhelming conclusion of Bush's inconsistency is, however, harder to counter: the evidence is simply too strong.
       The findings in The President of Good and Evil will come as no surprise to those who aren't fans of president Bush and his policies. Will those that do support Bush take anything from it ? Probably not: many people have a morality as muddled as Bush's, and rely on gut instincts (or perhaps simply don't worry too much about the big issues). And many simply won't be concerned about the moral qualms Singer raises: as long as it's Iraqis and Afghans that are being slaughtered (in not too indecent numbers) they don't have too much trouble with collateral damage, as long as they can drive their automobiles they don't care about the Kyoto Protocol, as long as it's not their sons and daughters being locked up without due process they don't care what happens in Guantánamo Bay -- and who trusts the UN anyway ?

       (Note: Disappointingly, Singer does not address one of the most interesting moral questions hovering around George Bush jr.: his wife Laura. On 6 November 1963 the then 17-year-old Laura Welch ran a stop sign, crashing into another vehicle and killing its driver, Michael Douglas (see, for example, this AP report). Then (as now -- unless one is under the influence, which she apparently was not), killing someone with a motor vehicle, even in cases of clear culpability, was apparently not considered anything bad: the future first lady was apparently not charged with any misconduct.
       While the killing of Douglas was (one imagines) unintentional, Laura Welch was clearly fully and solely to blame: it is referred to as an "accident", but was anything but. (Driving a multi-ton vehicle capable of doing incredible damage through a stop sign or red light is surely no different than pointing a gun at a distant crowd and pulling the trigger; the fact that this is an everyday occurrence (happening millions of times daily at intersections across the country) makes it no less dangerous or excusable.) Because of the special place in the hearts of Americans that cars have, traffic laws -- and the consequences of not strictly obeying them -- are not taken very seriously, and so Miss Welch -- like, admittedly, thousands of others guilty of similar carnage annually -- faced no legal consequences whatsoever.
       Unfortunately, the press has shown little interest in this event and its effect on both the first lady and specifically the president. The AP report quotes her spokesman, Andrew Malcolm, as saying: "To this day, Mrs. Bush remains unable to talk about it"; curiously interviewers have not pressed the issue. It is unclear whether the president is troubled by the fact that his wife is a killer, or how he has rationalised her actions. (It's particularly interesting if this is a demonstration of his Christian forgiveness, as he has shown himself less forgiving with arguably less culpable killers -- for example, (as Singer notes) in opposing a bill to prohibit the use of the death penalty against profoundly retarded criminals (with IQs less than 65) while governor of Texas.) It is also unclear whether this has informed his moral stance on any form of death-causing (from abortion to bombarding Baghdad); certainly one imagines that this would be something worth exploring more closely.)

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The President of Good and Evil: Reviews: George Bush jr.: Peter Singer: Other books by Peter Singer under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian philosopher Peter Singer is the author of the influential Animal Liberation, and currently teaches at Princeton University.

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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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