In the presidential election that brought George W. Bush to power, the moral character of the candidates was a significant factor with some voters. Among those who rated honesty as an important factor influencing their choice of candidate, 80% said they voted for Bush. These voters were disgusted with Bill Clinton, not only for his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky but for lying about it. They wanted someone to bring sound ethical values to the White House and believed that Bush was the man to do it. What have the last three years told us about Bush’s ethics?
The discrepancies between Bush’s prewar claims about weapons of mass destruction and the postwar reality have convinced many that they know the answer to this question. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt about the intelligence on Iraq and look to other issues. Do Bush’s statements and actions reflect a coherent, defensible ethic?
First, what does Bush think about the proper reach of the federal government? In his preelection memoir, “A Charge to Keep,” he was eloquent about his support for states’ rights, individual freedom and small government. He contrasted that with “a philosophy that seeks solutions from distant bureaucracies” and added, “I am a conservative because I believe government closest to the people governs best.”
Again and again during the campaign he hammered that theme. On the “Larry King Show,” in response to a question about a hypothetical state vote on gay marriage, he replied: “The states can do what they want to do. Don’t try to trap me in this states’ issue.”
Yet in office, Bush has done just the opposite of what he said he would do. The Patriot Act has given the federal government unprecedented powers over American citizens. Arguably, that legislation may be justified by the need to combat terrorism. But no such justification exists for Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment to rule out gay marriage. Here, his stated reason for this proposal is to curb “judicial activism.” And what about attempts by his attorney general to overturn Oregon’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide and to fight against state decisions allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes? These changes were brought in at the ballot box, by the state’s voters.
Next, take Bush’s stance on taxes. Leading up to the 2000 election, he argued for a tax cut on the basis that the government was running a huge surplus, and the money should be given back to the taxpayers. Instead of government spending the money, he said, his preferred option was “to let the American people spend their own money to meet their own needs.”
When the surplus evaporated and turned into a huge deficit, however, Bush did not reverse his arguments. Instead, he simply switched ground, defending a further tax cut on a completely new basis: that it would benefit the economy. But now a tax cut was not letting the American people spend their own money; it was letting this generation of Americans spend the money of future generations.
Finally, there is Bush’s policy on the sanctity of human life. In August 2001, he announced that his administration would not allow federal funds to be used for research on stem cells if that funding could encourage the destruction of human embryos -- even though there are more than 400,000 surplus embryos in laboratories across the country and the chances of most of them ever becoming children are close to zero.
In defending this policy, the president says he worries about “a culture that devalues life” and believes that, as president, he has “an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.” Yet under his command, the U.S. military has, by the most conservative estimates, caused the deaths of at least 4,000 civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the real number could easily be three times as high -- and injured thousands more. Sometimes a target as insignificant as a single Taliban truck has brought American bombs down on a village, killing people sleeping in their homes.
In short, Bush is on the side of the states against “distant bureaucracies” when he is governor of Texas and on the side of Washington, D.C., when he is running the federal government. When there is a budget surplus, he is in favor of tax cuts to return the surplus to the taxpayers, and when there is a deficit, he is still in favor of tax cuts.
When he focuses on human embryos, he speaks of his obligation to foster and encourage respect for life, but when respect for human life gets in the way of his wish to strike back at those he considers enemies of the United States, he is willing to bring about the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings. These are not the actions of a person of principle.
In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Bush repeatedly referred to his “instincts” or “instinctive reactions” and said: “I’m not a textbook player. I’m a gut player.” That may be true. The problem is that Bush’s moral instincts seem to allow him to sway in whatever direction seems most convenient.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His book “The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush” (Dutton) has just been published.