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These articles were prepared for the May 12, 2004 issue of U.S. 1
Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Bush’s ‘Good & Evil’
Peter Singer, the renowned ethicist who attracts both adulation and
scorn, took a leave from his teaching at Princeton University to come
up with a scorcher, just in time for the Presidential election. Singer
reads and signs "The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W.
Bush" on Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Marketfair
(609-897-9250). Singer is a provocative, though low key speaker, and
both his fans and his detractors generally show up in large numbers,
so arrive early to get a seat.
For this book Singer studies the work of all those who have focused on
the Bush presidency, from authors David Frum and Bob Woodward to
Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and the Times’s Paul Krugman (also a
professor at Princeton). Singer also invokes such authorities as
Lawrence Kohlberg, who studies the development of moral judgment, and
jurisprudence expert Ronald Dworkin and subjects what President Bush
has said and done to the dissecting methods that ethicists use, and
his scalpel is sharp.
Fair is fair, says Singer, noting that Bush asks schools to teach the
difference between right and wrong. He credits Bush with not asking
teachers to indoctrinate their students without giving reasons for
their "good versus evil" opinions. Bush would agree, Singer concludes,
"that we can usefully discuss different possible ethical views, and
judge which of them are more defensible. In the course of this book I
argue that Bush’s own moral positions are often not defensible. If I
succeed in persuading you of this, I will have established that Bush
is at least correct when he asserts that is possible to educate people
in right and wrong."
Singer does hit all the hot button topics: abortion, cloning, stem
cell research, global warming, unfair taxes, faith, terrorist
confinement at Guantanamo, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, and so on.
But this an ethicist talking, and it is just this sort of
dispassionate dissection of words and sentences that sets Singer’s
book several levels above a diatribe. Here’s an example:
"Suppose someone says, `We should clone human beings because aliens
have told us to do so.’ We would, if we were to take this ridiculous
claim seriously, ask for evidence that these aliens really exist, that
they have told us to clone humans, and that there is some reason why
we should do what they tell us to do.’ Suppose that the response to
our questions is, ‘I have encountered these aliens in moments of deep
despair, and they have entered into my head and my heart, and I love
them and know I can trust them. Open your hearts to them, and you too
will come to love them and see that they are right.’"
Singer goes on to compare the fictional message from aliens, offered
without proof, to the assertion that human embryos should not be
destroyed because "human life is a sacred gift from the Creator,"
which Singer says is also unproven, and he concludes that this line of
thought does not work as a "justification for public policy within the
sphere of public reason."
An atheist himself, Singer does not shy away from going deep into the
study of Christian theology, particularly Bush’s assertions that he
has a clear sense of good and evil. Singer points out that seeing the
world as a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil
does not fall into the realm of orthodox Christian views but is
associated instead with the heresy of the Manicheans, an early
For Singer, the ethicist, the most unsettling conclusion is that Bush
has no solid ethical code at all, that his views "do not fit within a
coherent ethical framework, because he reacts instinctively to
specific situations. He feels that he knows what to do on any given
occasion, but because he is not a reflective person, he makes no
attempt to put his judgments on specific issues together and see how
coherently they fit with each other . . . For an unreflective person,
having a sense of ‘moral clarity’ that disregards the shadings in
human motivation and conduct can be a vice, not a virtue. When it is
coupled with a firm belief that the nation you lead is on the right
side of history, pursuing ‘God’s justice,’ and even that there is some
divine plan that has put you in the position of leader of that nation,
what you see as moral clarity, others will see as self righteousness."
"When that self-proclaimed moral clarity is coupled with actions that
fail to live up to the rhetoric, others will see it as hypocrisy. In
the president of the most powerful nation on earth, self-righteousness
and hypocrisy are dangerous vices."
Peter Singer, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Route 1 South, 609-897-9250.
Booksigning by the professor of bioethics at Princeton University’s
Center for Human Values. Free. Thursday, May 13, 7 p.m.
Step II Productions has open auditions for the musical comedy, ‘My
Favorite Year," on Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23 at 2 p.m. at the
Dance Conservatory, Vermillion Square, 8919 New Falls Road, Levittown,
PA. Call 215-946-0100.
The Ritz Theater Company has auditions for "The Foreigner" on Monday,
June 14, 6 p.m. 915 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn. Call 856-858-5230. Fresh
Air Fund seeks volunteer families to share their homes with New York
City children from underprivileged communities this summer. Call Betsy
Bloemeke at 609-448-1027.
Phoenix Productions has auditions for "Grease" on Tuesday, Wednesday,
and Thursday, May 18 to 20, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Production opens July 9
at Count Basie Theater in Red Bank. Call 732-747-0014.
Voices Chorale seeks talented singers in all voice parts to join the
next concert season. Auditions are in May and June. Call 609-637-9383
South Brunswick Arts Commission seeks design proposals for a permanent
centerpiece in the 9/11 Memorial Garden in front of the municipal
building. New Jersey artists, sculptors, architects, landscape
designers, and others 18 and older to submit proposals for design to
recognize its impact on the town, which lost three residents.
Proposals must be received by June 30. Call 732-329-4000 ext. 635.
Middlesex County Cultural & Heritage Commission offers history grants
to support programs relating to the history of New Jersey. Grants from
$750 to $2,000 are available. For information call 732-745-4489.
The Waldorf School of Princeton’s seventh grade French class is
collecting unused bicycles to send to Haiti, where they will be used
for transportation. Call 609-466-1970 ext. 45.
Community Options seeks items for their 13th annual auction on May 14.
To donate, call Phyllis Grodnicki at 609-452-1887.
Trenton Area Soup Kitchen seeks volunteers June to September for
evening meals 3 to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday. Minimum age is 13. They
also need volunteers to facilitate activities for the Kids Room during
summer vacation beginning on June 21. Call Cathy Ann at 609-695-5456.
Wings of Dove seeks families interested in hosting Russian orphans
during a two-week summer program between July 23 and August 7. Call
Amy Martingsen at 732-229-0452.
Young Artist and Young Musician programs at Westminster Conservatory
has auditions for the 2004-05 school year on Monday May 17, and
Friday, May 21.
Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey seeks musicians for 2004-05.
Audition is Tuesday, June 8. Application is at wwww.yocj.org.
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