Singer Challenges Bush's Ethics

Kelly N Fahl

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer speaks at the First Parish Church of Cambridge last night about his new book on President Bush.

Peter Singer’s public appearances are frequently greeted by protesters, but the Princeton philosopher whom the Wall Street Journal once branded “Professor Death” elicited a warm response from a crowd of 80 at the First Parish Church in Cambridge last night.

Singer—whom one disabled rights activist called “the most dangerous man alive” because he has justified euthanasia for severely impaired infants—has turned his attention to American political rhetoric in his latest book, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush.

Singer told the crowd that friends and colleagues initially responded incredulously when he announced he would write about Bush’s ethics. Some called the topic “an oxymoron,” while others joked that “it must be a very short book,” Singer said.

But Singer said that Bush’s rhetoric has generated a heightened emphasis on ethics in politics.

“Overwhelmingly he uses the word ‘evil’ as a noun,” Singer said. “When you use ‘evil’ as a noun, you’re referring to it as something substantive. It’s like there’s a force out there, and we have to do something to defeat it.”

Singer said Bush’s moralistic language appeals to voters even beyond the evangelical Christian constituency.

“One of his strongest campaign planks was that he was going to be an ethical leader,” Singer said. “That was crucial in getting him elected—or whatever word you want to use.”

Audience members suggested in a question-and-answer session after the speech that Bush’s moralistic language may be a cynical political ploy. But according to Singer, “if we want to have a real debate about the president’s policies, we should consider the possibility that he is sincere.”

Singer sought to highlight inconsistencies in Bush’s moral reasoning.

“Bush has said he sees it as his role as president of the U.S. to promote a ‘culture of life’ at home and abroad,” Singer said, noting that Bush’s first prime-time television address focused on embryonic stem cell research.

“These embryos are obviously not sentient beings,” Singer said. “They are clusters of cells. They have no anatomy. They have no brain. They can’t feel anything.”

“There’s a gross disparity between the respect President Bush is showing for a small number of human embryos and the disregard he is showing for a large number of Iraqi civilians,” Singer said.

And Singer charged that while Bush claims to support states’ rights, he has sought to bar Oregon from allowing assisted suicide, block California from legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and prevent Massachusetts from granting marriage licenses to gay couples.

Singer described a July 14, 2003 Oval Office press conference at which Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had shut weapons inspectors out of Iraq—a claim Singer said is specious.

“[Bush] didn’t look like he was drunk or on drugs, but it’s hard to explain what else was going on,” Singer said.

“Nothing—he’s stupid,” one audience member interjected.