Professing Education

 

Book Review: The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush Publisher: Dutton: New York, NY
Author: Peter Singer (2004).
Publisher: Dutton: New York, NY

John M. Novak
Brock University, Ontario

Patrick Shade (2001) has pointed out that, from a pragmatic point of view, hope is much more than the mere desire for something better. Rather, pragmatic hope is an active virtue that involves the persistent, resourceful, and courageous habit of attempting to make worthwhile things happen. If that is the case, then Peter Singer is a very hopeful man and his new book on President George Bush is a living example of this virtue. Professors of education can be well-informed by what Singer says, how he says it, and, most importantly, why he says it.

Peter Singer is the Australian-born, well-published, often cited, and intellectually provocative Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His book is based on the idea that if George Bush continually appeals to concepts such as good and evil and the importance of being a moral person, then it is more than fair, it is necessary, to examine what he says and does in the name of morality. According to Singer, Bush is inconsistent, dishonest, and dangerous in his thinking and actions. These are no small problems for those within and outside the borders of the most powerful nation in the world.

The book is broken into two parts sandwiched between a short introduction and a concluding analysis. In the first part, Bush's domestic ethics are examined in terms of implications for bringing people together, protecting rights from big government, respecting freedom of the individual, and using religious beliefs. Each of the four chapters in this part assumes sincerity on the part of Bush but shows the lack of clarity and consistency in his words and actions. Quite simply, under Bush's policies the gap between the rich and the poor has greatly expanded, states' rights have been overridden in many cases, and individual freedoms greatly curtailed. In the chapter on religion, Singer points out that it is not the content of Bush's beliefs that is the issue but rather the dogmatic way the beliefs are held and used to justify actions that require much more public scrutiny. There are great democratic dangers if public policy is not debated within the framework of public justification.

The second part of the book looks at the relationship of the United States and the rest of the world. Singer points out that the United States is not taking on its share of world responsibility, has violated just-war theory in using lethal force in Afghanistan, has used irresponsible and dishonest information to invade Iraq, and has created serious repercussions in international relations because of its disregard for the United Nations. Examples he cites to make these claims include the refusal to sign the Kyoto Accord, the fact that violence was not used as a last resort in deciding to invade Afghanistan, the deceptive use of information known to be invalid to justify claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the choice to use preemptive measures anywhere and anytime that do not need to be defended to the rest of the world. It is difficult for other nations to look upon the United States as the ethical "beacon on the hill" if it follows such "might makes right" practices. This ethic of power makes the world a much more dangerous place.

In the final chapter, Singer points out that George Bush's position in not consistently based on individual rights, utilitarian principles, or Christian ethics. Bush too easily overrides individual rights, favors the few over the many in terms of the consequences of his actions, and is in disfavor with many orthodox Christian churches regarding his actions. Interestingly, Singer points out that Bush could be considered Manichaean, that is someone who sees the world in terms of a battle between the forces of good and evil. Singer also notes that the Orthodox Church considered Manichaeanism to be a heresy and St. Augustine thought that "seeing some kind of evil force as the source of all that is bad is a way of masking one's own failings" (209). Bush's ethical failing, Singer contends, lies in following an unquestioned intuitive ethic, in being a "gut player" who refuses to dig deeper into the more subtle and complex understandings needed to act with care, consistency, and responsibility. These are not small ethical faults for the "moral leader of the free world."

The President of Good and Evil is well-written, carefully argued, and provocatively insightful. The book does much more than point out the inadequacies of the ethics of George Bush. It also persistently illuminates complex social issues, resourcefully presents ethical examples and analogies, and courageously seeks to speak truthfully to power. The book serves as a beacon of hope for professors of education who strive to raise the level of public discussion in a world needing to be much more democratic. Its method of ethical inquiry should be used on all candidates.


References

Shade, P. (2001) Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.