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Singer joins political debate in book about Bush's ethics

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Walk into a bookstore these days and you're likely to see a table crowded with books about President Bush. Amid the insider accounts by former White House officials and the examinations of Bush's policies by investigative journalists is Peter Singer's new book, "The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush" (Dutton Books).

   Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Singer, the DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, has analyzed the ethical basis of a broad range of policies implemented by the Bush administration during the last three years. Singer observes that Bush, more than any president in recent memory, has made pronouncements on good and evil and right and wrong a regular part of his dialogue with the American people.

Singer, who has been at Princeton since 1999, has written extensively on ethical issues for the last 30 years. Among his most notable works are "Animal Liberation," "Practical Ethics" and "Rethinking Life and Death," which received the 1995 Australian National Book Council's Banjo Award for non-fiction. He is widely credited with triggering the animal-rights movement.

In his latest work, Singer examines the president's pronouncements on tax cuts, stem-cell research, the war in Iraq and faith-based initiatives, among other topics, and finds what he believes to be ethical inconsistencies. Throughout the book, Singer makes the case that Bush has failed to carry through on the values he has so often trumpeted. Recently Singer spoke to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about how he became interested in writing about a current political figure and whether it's appropriate to question the ethics of a sitting president.

Isn't it somewhat unusual for a philosopher to be writing about these kinds of current political issues?

It is somewhat unusual because of the way philosophers see themselves today, but there is a tradition of philosophers being actively involved in political questions. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill was writing about many political issues and actually served as a member of the House of Commons for a time. But with the professionalization of philosophy it's solidly housed in academia now it's become more unusual for philosophers to actually look at current political figures in the way that I'm doing.

I think it is desirable for not only philosophers but other people in academia to roll up their sleeves and get into this. I'm not saying every philosopher has to, but I think it's a healthy thing for the political debate in the country for academics to contribute to political discussions.

What got you interested in writing a book on Bush's morality?

I was about to start teaching a class on bioethics when Bush gave his speech about federal funding for research on stem cells. The stem cells are drawn from human embryos, a process that destroys the embryos. I decided to give that speech to my class as an exercise in analyzing the president's argument.

And then I realized stem-cell research is not the only area where Bush makes ethical arguments. In fact, he does it for pretty much all the major policy areas he addresses. So that made me think about examining topics I had already been interested in, like climate change, with issues that were unfolding as I was writing, like the war in Iraq.

What is your view of Bush's policy on stem cells?

Bush tried to carve out a compromise that would not encourage the further destruction of embryos, but also would not prevent research from going ahead. He said if the stem-cell lines were in existence on the date of his speech, Aug. 9, 2001, then scientists could get federal funding for doing research on them. He claimed that there were something like 60 stem-cell lines in existence that were suitable for research, but in fact this compromise has really fallen apart and has turned out to be more or less equivalent to a ban.

The 60 stem-cell lines simply weren't there far fewer were there, and there's a case for saying that none of them are really suitable for research in the long term. Scientists say there is a need for new stem-cell lines, but they can't get federal funding for them. I think what he has done has greatly hampered research in this country. It was not surprising that it was South Korean scientists who were the first to clone cells to the point at which they could obtain stem cells.

Bush says these very early human embryos are something precious to be protected, but I don't think he makes a sound argument. It's simply based on the claim that if they're human life, they're precious and to be protected. I would argue that you need to have more capacities for your life to be precious and protected, more than just being something living that belongs to the species homo sapiens.

And his concern for protecting the lives of human embryos doesn't seem to be matched by an equal or greater concern for protecting the lives of Afghan or Iraqi civilians. From my point of view, the lives of people who are born and have families and so on are actually much more precious than embryonic life.

You talk about Bush having a naive concept of ethics. What do you mean by that?

I use an example from David Frum's book, "The Right Man." Frum is a former Bush speechwriter, and he's written a pretty strongly pro-Bush book. Frum describes Bush pre-recording a speech to be played the next day. On the day of the recording Bush is in Washington, D.C., and the speech reads, "I'm delighted to be in California today." And the president stops and says, "But I'm not in California today." He doesn't want to read those words because they would be a lie.

That's a very naive idea of what it is to tell a lie. I think the lie is completely harmless under those circumstances. And contrast that with the president's apparent failure to understand the seriousness of having provided the nation with false information about making the case for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. He might say he didn't actually tell a lie in that case in strict terms he didn't say something that he knew to be untrue. But he didn't take responsibility for carefully checking how good the information that he had was.

I think those examples suggest a certain rigidity about moral rules. On the one hand, he claims to be scrupulously honest. On the other hand, he doesn't realize that what happened regarding the weapons of mass destruction is a form of dishonesty that is much more serious than the kind of thing he wouldn't read in that speech about being in California.

But is it really possible to lead the United States within strict moral guidelines?

I definitely think it's possible to do a lot better than Bush has. Obviously, in the national interest, politicians may sometimes have to say things that are not the full truth. I'm not trying to hold him to a set of rigid moral rules just the contrary. I'm suggesting that he should be more flexible in some cases, but the flexibility has to be an intelligent flexibility that's guided by moral principles.

Some people might find it fairly controversial to question the ethics of a sitting president. Have you gotten that feedback from people?

I haven't had anyone who has said you shouldn't question the ethics of a sitting president. After all, many of those who are strongly in support of Bush were extremely vocal in questioning the ethics of his predecessor. In fact, the Republicans implicitly promoted Bush's good moral character by saying we need to get rid of Democrats like Bill Clinton who disgrace the White House with their behavior. So I think Bush has set himself up to be examined ethically.

Considering that the book came out in March, several months before a presidential election, are people accusing you of being a politically motivated Democrat? And are you one?

I'm not a U.S. citizen, so I'm not a member of any political party and I won't be voting in the election. But I don't make any secret of my political views. On many issues they would be closer to those espoused by Democrats than by Republicans. But if you were to disqualify people from writing books about political issues if they had political leanings one way or the other, there wouldn't be too many political books written.

What other projects are you working on?

My next book is tentatively titled "The Ethics of What We Eat." It will be about ethical issues in the production of food. I'm writing it with a co-author who has been involved in examining farming issues for a long time. We're at the research stage so far. We will look at the treatment of animals, environmental impacts and whether organic farming is better than non-organic farming. We also may examine some trade issues and questions about genetically modified organisms.

You are going to a half-time schedule next year?

Yes, I will be here half-time for the next three academic years, spending the fall semester here and the spring semester in Australia. I will have some attachment to an Australian university, but I haven't settled on which one yet. I won't be teaching when I'm there I will use the time for research and writing. Our daughters live in Melbourne, so my wife and I want to spend more time near them.