Peter Singer is the John Stuart Mill of 21st-century philosophy. Like Mill - and unlike the majority of philosophers today - he has aimed not just to contribute to academic disputation, but to change the world. For Singer, as for Mill, philosophy is above all a tool of rational reform, and he has been highly successful in using it to challenge conventional wisdom. No one has done more to change the way we think about how we treat other animal species. In demonstrating that the common belief that human interests should always come first is baseless, he has not only contributed to clarity of thinking in ethics. He has played a key role in the struggle of the animal liberation movement to end barbarous practices such as factory farming and vivisection.
Singer's influence in these matters has been wholly benign. The notion that human life has some sort of unique value is a residue of Christian belief that has done enormous harm, and the world would be a better place if - along with Hindu and Buddhist cultures - we did without it. Where Singer seems to me on shaky ground is in his belief that large changes in ethics or politics can ever be mainly the result of rational argument. Like Mill, he greatly exaggerates the potential role of reason in human affairs.
A quasi-religious faith in reason shines out from every page of The President of Good and Evil. In this brilliant and indispensable book, Singer "takes George W Bush seriously" and analyses and demolishes the arguments used by the President for his policies. Ranging from tax cuts to abortion and gay marriage, stem cell research and Iraq, Singer demonstrates that Bush's views "lack any clear and consistent philosophical underpinning".
As Singer is aware, this is not exactly news. Like most politicians, the US President has neither the time nor taste for philosophical reflection. If Bush differs from the general run of politicians, it is because he combines a lack of interest in argument with a habit of making vast philosophical claims. Bush's speeches are full of grandiose statements about the nature of freedom and government. Moreover, he delights in peppering his orations with cosmic-sounding declarations about good and evil.
Bush's fondness for moralising is well known. What is unclear is whether his value-system plays any significant role in shaping his policies. Here, I think, Singer takes Bush much too seriously. In the case of his stance on abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, Bush's policies are testimony to the power of the Christian Right, not only in the US electorate but also - perhaps more importantly - in funding his election campaign. It is primarily the political power of American fundamentalism that determines Bush's stance. His personal belief-system - if he has one - is irrelevant.
In the pivotal case of Iraq the irrelevance of Bush's personal beliefs is even clearer. It was not any vision of a cosmic struggle between good and evil that led him to launch the invasion and occupation, but the power of neo-conservative ideologues in his administration in the aftermath of September 11. Singer writes that though he is "not particularly keen on conspiracy theories", it does look as if in the case of Iraq Bush "really was someone's puppet".
In fact, the invasion of Iraq was not the work of any conspiracy. It was the upshot of a malign combination of events, in which a weak President seized an opportunity to look strong. Aided by the national mood of shock after the terrorist attacks, the neo-cons were able to overcome the opposition of practically every branch of government and persuade Bush to launch the war. The result was predictable (and predicted). Iraq is now another Chechnya, on a larger scale. The true lesson of Iraq is the impotence of reason in history.
John Gray's 'Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern' is published in paperback by FaberReuse content