MOYERS: Watching all this, I decided it's time to talk to Peter Singer. Peter Singer is one of the world's most formidable and controversial philosophers. His books on philosophy, ethics and morality have been published in at least 20 languages.
The latest is entitled the PRESIDENT OF GOOD AND EVIL, THE ETHICS OF GEORGE W. BUSH. A native of Australia, Mr. Singer now teaches bioethics and philosophy at Princeton University. Welcome to NOW.
SINGER: Thank you, Bill, great to be with you.
MOYERS: All of us have been holding in our heads simultaneously this week those images, the images of the terrorist beheading the young American from Pennsylvania and the images of what happened in that prison. Is one of those atrocities more reprehensible than the other?
SINGER: Well, I mean, obviously killing someone is more reprehensible than sexually humiliating them. That's true. But, you know, we don't know yet everything that's happened in Abu Ghraib. And there are reports of people who died in suspicious circumstances from blunt injuries with bruises and so on. So, it may actually be that American soldiers did kill people in that prison. And while, you know, you might say there are still differences between that and the beheading… the differences start to become gray rather than black and white.
MOYERS: Let me read you some conservative Web site this morning. This is by a man who has been a close advisor to George W. Bush. He says, quote, "The photo of an Iraqi man with a leash around his neck showed shameful perversity. But at least the man still had a neck. The United States during the initial phase of the Iraq war used "smart bombs" in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties. Compare that to Islamic fascists sewing off Nick Berg's head."
SINGER: I wish it were true that the United States had really made a serious attempt to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I think there were many cases where the United States did kill civilians in a way that doesn't show great care for their lives. For example, in Afghanistan, a village was bombed.
And civilians were killed, innocent, you know, peasant villagers. And when asked why that village was bombed, the Pentagon said, "Well, there was a Taliban truck in that village. And that's a legitimate target." Now I don't think destroying one Taliban truck is enough reason to justify killing innocent Afghans.
MOYERS: Are there any circumstances under which you could morally justify that if you're trying to save a lot of lives you have to accept the loss of some lives?
SINGER: If you're really sure that it's absolutely the only way to save a lot of lives. But I don't think destroying a Taliban truck is so important. And there are other things that happened in Iraq.
For example, there was a civilian neighborhood in Basra that was bombed, a residential neighborhood in attempt to kill "Chemical Ali" this Iraqi general who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons many years earlier. And that killed, for example, wiped out this whole family more or less, the Hamoodi family, a family of 14. And ten were killed from an infant to a grandmother. They were all killed.
Now, it didn't kill Chemical Ali. He was arrested alive and well four months later. Even if it had killed him would that have been justified? You know, it was not really a vital military objective. It was just trying to get this bad person. Now, you can't justify what we're doing by saying someone else is doing something bad, you know. Weren't we taught in kindergarten that two wrongs don't make a right? Isn't that still the case?
MOYERS: You heard Senator Inhofe say that he's more outraged by the outrage than he is by anything else.
SINGER: Yes, and he was saying, "Well, you know, these people thank Allah that Saddam is not in charge of this prison." So, is that what we're comparing ourselves to as long as the way we run the prison is a little bit better than the way Saddam ran the prison? Is that good enough for America?
MOYERS: You said something to one of my colleagues earlier that intrigues me. You said a President with a more realistic, less faith-based view of America, might have seen the risk that American guards were likely to abuse Iraqi prisoners under their control, and taken stronger measures to prevent it. What does a faith-based view of America have to do with how those prisoners were treated in Iraq?
SINGER: Well, I think that the President has, you know, just as he has this religious faith, that he knows the difference between good and evil, so he has this faith that Americans are good. Alright? And he doesn't really see Americans in a objective and realistic way, where he can understand that if you put people in charge of prisoners, there is always the potential for abuse.
And we know that. You know? There have been many studies that have shown that. That it…
MOYERS: It happens all the time in American prisons.
SINGER: Well, it certainly happens, in fact, it happened in American prisons when President Bush was governor of Texas, right? The Texas prisons were under a federal court order because of abuses in those prisons. So, he should have known it from that alone.
And yet, I think because he has this view that just says, "Americans are good, decent people," he's unrealistic in thinking about what's likely to happen, if you put people in charge of foreigners. You tell them that they're suspected terrorists. We tell them that they have useful information that we can get out of them, you know? I think he should have known, and would have known without this faith-based view of America that there was a real risk that something like these abuses would occur.
MOYERS: Doesn't his war on terror have a moral legitimacy? We were attacked. The United States was attacked, if somebody's trying to kill you don't you have the right to try to kill that person before he gets to it first?
SINGER: Absolutely, you do. But you don't have the right to kill other people who are not attacking you or not connected with that attack on you.
MOYERS: So, the war on terror should have been more…
SINGER: It should have been much more focused I think. Yes, it should have been more like a police operation, an attempt to get the people who really were involved with it instead of being something much broader. And everyone really agrees that there's no evidence linking Saddam with the 9-11 plot.
MOYERS: Even the administration has…
SINGER: Even the administration has accepted that. So, you know, this is not part of the war on terror.
MOYERS: Who is accountable for what those soldiers did in that prison?
SINGER: Well, I think that the rule is that the chain of command goes up to those who are responsible for the running of the prisons and for insuring that there's proper discipline in the prisons. And I think ultimately, the responsibility goes to the Commander in Chief, in other words to the President for not having set the right tone as to how American soldiers should conduct themselves.
For example, he said in the State of the Union Address, which was watched by tens of millions of Americans and Congress, that the United States has assassinated people who are its enemies. He boasted of that. He said it was you know, like some… said something like, "Put it this way, they're no longer a problem to us." In other words, he boasted of assassinations which are outside any rule of law or due process.
And I think he thereby gave the idea that, you know, once we suspect people are our enemies, we are above the law. We can go after them. And we can kill them.
And it's not surprising then that people at a lower level think, "Oh, well these people are terrorists too. They're our enemies. So, you know, we can also go above the law."
MOYERS: So, what could he do now to try to make things right? What would you like to see the President do?
SINGER: Well, I would like to see the President admit some responsibility, admit that he's made a wrong turning. You remember that press conference a month or so ago where he was asked what his worst mistake was. And the question completely, you know, flummoxed him. He couldn't think of anything.
I would like him to say… to admit that he made a mistake in not making it crystal clear to the armed forces that these operations had to respect the lives and dignity and rights of Iraqis all the way down even if they were suspects in prison. So, he should admit that mistake. And I think he should ask Rumsfeld to resign.
I think that's the only way in which you can show the people of the world that we take this seriously as a reflection on the way in which the prisons were run and not this idea that it's just these few who have let us down and that Americans are all wonderful. I mean, the world just doesn't swallow that one.
MOYERS: For an elected official to say, "I am responsible," does that go far enough morally?
SINGER: Well, I mean, it depends on the political system, right? If this were a parliamentary system, I think you would expect the President in charge to resign. In a presidential system, that's obviously much more unusual. So I'm not really expecting the President to resign on this occasion.
But it may well be that the President should consider not running again. Because, you know, that's what Lyndon Johnson did when he felt the Vietnam War had got to this state where he was becoming perhaps a polarizing force and a burden on trying to get out of this terrible situation. And maybe President Bush could recognize that a new President who would have a better chance of achieving peace and being able to work with our opponents in Iraq than he himself could have.
MOYERS: A lot of conservatives are saying it right now that what happened with the beheading of the young man from Pennsylvania just shows the kind of people the United States is up against. It really does justify the President's concerns about terrorists and Iraq irrespective of weapons of mass destruction and the al Qaeda connection.
SINGER: I think we always knew that there are terrible people in the world who will do awful things. But the question is what's the best way to respond to them. I think the best way to respond is to try to isolate them and get the vast majority of decent people, Islamic or Christian or whatever they might be on our side.
And attacking a country is a sure way to drive the moderates into the ranks of the extremists. Because it unites the country against the invader. And that seems to be what we've done.
MOYERS: There are those who say that Americans are safer because of the invasion of Iraq.
SINGER: I don't particularly feel any safer. And I don't think that there's any evidence that that's true. On the contrary, I think that in the long term, the fact that we've stirred up this hatred against us is probably an excellent recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda. And we may well be less safe.
MOYERS: Your book is especially compelling. Because it's not just visceral Bush bashing. I mean, you're in places, generous to the President. You write that, "President Bush is America's most prominent moralist." What exactly do you mean by that?
SINGER: I mean that he's the most prominent person who talks about right and wrong, good and evil. And our… I think in contrast perhaps to President Clinton, he puts that up front all the time. And he's trying to say, you know, morality is important.
It's important to act justly. It's important to do what's the right thing. And I applaud that. I mean, I agree with the President that morality is important. That's why I've spent my life teaching it, and thinking about it, and writing about it.
And I agree with him, too, that it's not just a matter of you know, taste, or subjective judgment. That we really can think about this. We can educate our children in ideas about ethics, and right and wrong. So, I give him credit for that.
MOYERS: You say that the President came to office, powered by moral rhetoric, to a degree unusual in politics. He said he wanted to restore honor, and compassion to the White House, to reinvigorate the moral stature of our political culture. And yet, at the end of this book, you don't give him very high marks for doing that.
SINGER: No. Because I think he has this very black and white view of ethics. And in fact, it's a view which I describe as adolescent. And that might just seem a term of abuse.
But I don't mean it as a term of abuse. I'm referring to Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard moral psychologist, who has made a great study of moral development, who talked about people moving from one stage of moral growth to another.
And Bush seems to be still in the stage that Kohlberg describes as, "The Conventional Stage," where you have moral rules. And you adhere to those rules.
But you don't really think about the point of the rules, and about the larger claims of human welfare. And I give some examples in the book, where I think that Bush is kind of stuck at this level of just saying, "Well, if I don't tell a lie, that means if I don't exactly say something that is false, then what I've done is okay. I haven't broken the moral rule."
And therefore, he doesn't accept responsibility for things that are not technically lies. Like you know, we have learnt that Saddam has been trying to buy Uranium in Africa. Even though that was clearly misleading, and misled people to think that it was true. So, you know, I think that he has this notion of ethics, which doesn't really see the larger picture of the effect of what he is doing.
MOYERS: Is it possible not to tell a lie, and live one?
SINGER: That would be one way of putting it, you see? Yes. I think that's an excellent way of putting it. But not in terms of the President's ethics, I believe.
I mean, I think he thinks that as long as I don't say something that's literally untrue, I've not told a lie. And from reports of those who work with him, you know that's what he tries to do.
MOYERS: When I became press secretary many years ago, while you were a young man, my father sent me a telegraph that said, "Tell the truth, if you can. But if you can't tell the truth, don't tell a lie."
SINGER: Well, that's obviously true. Someone who's in a press secretary position, a good way of putting it, right? But I would like to go further.
And I'd like to say "Be aware of what people will understand from what you say, or don't say. It's not just a matter of whether your words are literally a lie. But what impression are you making? And what will people take home from what you've said? And if what they take home is a false impression, particularly on a matter as important as whether this nation should go to war, then I think that that's a very serious, moral failing, even if you've not literally told a lie."
MOYERS: People, critics say, "Peter Singer is a brilliant theorist of the abstract ideals of ethics and morality. But he's totally unaware of how politics works in this country." So, my question is: is it possible to be morally consistent, and politically viable in a pluralistic society like this?
SINGER: Well, obviously politics forces you into difficult positions. And you would probably know a lot more about this than I would, Bill. But I think it's possible to do a lot better than George Bush has. I mean, what would you think, sir, if I suggested that Jimmy Carter did hold a morally consistent line? Now of course, I know he didn't…
MOYERS: But he was not politically viable.
SINGER: Well no, but he was politically viable enough to serve four years as President, right?
SINGER: I mean, he got there. And he served a term. And I think, perhaps that if he had not had the misfortune of the Iranian Hostage Affair, he could have been re-elected.
I think that it is possible to be a person of good moral character, and be reasonably consistent in upholding your moral ideas. And still get to the top in politics.
MOYERS: Given where we are this weekend, what is the moral challenge facing America now in Iraq?
SINGER: I think the moral challenge is how to end the occupation as rapidly as possible, in a way that does not simply lead to civil war. Because that's clearly staring us in the face here.
MOYERS: The book is THE PRESIDENT OF GOOD AND EVIL. THE ETHICS OF GEORGE W. BUSH by Peter Singer. Thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
SINGER: Thank you, Bill. It's been great talking to you.