Peter Singer holds himself out as an ethicist, but he doesn?t teach the kind of ethics I recognize.
I realize that?s a pretty strong statement. But Singer keeps proving the truth of that every time he opens his mouth. He is, you may recall, the
So perhaps it?s no surprise that in this election year, Singer?s latest bid for attention comes in the form of a book titled The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush. His argument, as you might guess, is that George W. Bush doesn?t have any ethics?or, at best, that he doesn?t stick to the ethics he does have.
Singer?s method of demonstrating this point is to examine Bush?s words and actions in a number of different areas, like embryonic stem cell research and the war on terrorism. Then he evaluates those words and actions in light of several different belief systems.
From this exercise, Singer concludes that Bush is neither a libertarian nor a utilitarian. Well, I could have told him that and saved him a lot of research. But he also concludes that Bush?s actions are not consistently based on a Christian ethic. That assertion deserves serious consideration, because Bush himself claims to take his Christian faith very seriously and to base his ideas and actions on Christian principles. If Singer is right on this point, the president is as big a hypocrite as Singer believes him to be.
But the problem is that when you do try to look at Singer?s assertion seriously, it falls apart. That?s because Singer doesn?t show even the most basic understanding of the Christian ethic, and he makes no attempt to try to understand it. Instead, we get a statement like this: ?Christians hold a wide range of ethical views. Christian ethics has been in the teachings of different Christians, neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Kantian, Marxist, and existentialist. . . . Protestant Christians often look to the Bible, but cannot agree on how to interpret it, nor what priority to give its varying suggestions.? Because some Christians have been known to disagree on certain issues?for instance, embryonic research and abortion?Singer, therefore, declares that Bush?s positions on these issues are ?not inescapably implied by his Christian belief.?
That is as far as Singer ever gets in describing what a distinctively Christian ethic looks like. This from a man who is a distinguished philosopher and professor of ethics? The man New Yorker magazine called the greatest philosopher alive? He provides a clear working definition of utilitarianism and libertarianism with no trouble at all, but Christianity seems to throw him for a loop.
Judging by this vague and garbled account, I?d say the professor just hasn?t done his homework. This is surprising since Singer, though starting from false premises, is relentlessly logical. And when you consider that he?s writing a book about the ethics of George W. Bush and that Bush cites Christianity as the main influence in his life, Singer?s lack of effort to understand Christianity seems rather, well, unethical by any standard.
For further reading and information:
Douglas Kern, ? Beyond Peter Singer ,? Tech Central Station,
Michael Lind, review of The President of Good and Evil, New Statesman, 2004. Though Lind is no Bush fan either, he is highly critical of Singer?s book.
Click here to read the first chapter of Singer?s book.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030409, ? Questions of Life and Death: The Activist and the Professor .?
BreakPoint Commentary No. 010412, ? Beyond the Pale: Peter Singer?s Latest Outrage .? (Archived commentary; free registration required.)
Armand Nicholi, The Question of God (Free Press, 2002).
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