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Bush and the Theory of Moral Relativity

by Norene Kelly

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 4.

Our president scares me, and I know I am not the only one quaking in my cowboy boots (or, as the case may be, sneakers). In fact, I am not sure what frightens me more—terrorists, war, or the sharp right turn our government has taken since 9/11. Yet many remain blissfully comfortable with Bush and his talk of good and evil, his belief in moral absolutes. Where does his rhetoric come from? Simple: Bush is a born-again Christian, and he has no hesitation about injecting his personal religion into his governing.

So why is there not a greater outcry about the way he intermingles church and state? For one thing, according to a 2001 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. For another, some of us may feel that we need to “support our president” in this time of uncertainty, regardless of whether we agree with him. What we need to keep in mind, however, is that our president’s job is to support us—to represent us—regardless of whether we are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Baha’i, agnostic or atheist. At this important time in our country’s history, our president needs to articulate his policies and motivations at a level beyond the simplistic polemic of good and evil.

Indeed, we have a president who prefers intuition to logic and who shies away from (is afraid of?) complexity. Evidence of this abounds, but Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, is a particularly telling source.1 Rice not only works closely with Bush, but sees him during leisure hours—when other staff members do not—for example, watching football games. She says: “I know that the President is always going to ask first what is the principled thing to do or the right thing to do. . . . He least likes me to say, ‘This is complex.’”

Rice, like Bush, is a moralist, and she explains that her adoption of moralism was, in part, due to September 11. She says that the events of September 11 changed the way everybody thinks about the world. This seems like a very egocentric view: everybody in the world changed their thinking after September 11? I don’t think so—I know I didn’t. Of course some people did—namely people in our government—because it is just plain easier to push through legislation and go to war when the world can purportedly be divided into camps of good and evil. It doesn’t get much simpler than “We good, they bad,” a message particularly useful to a president who has a hard time articulating his thoughts, let alone his policies. In line with her adoption of moralism, Rice’s office last September released the National Security Strategy, which states that there is “a single, sustainable model for national success . . . right and true for every person, in every society.” If another country issued this statement—whether Great Britain, France, China, North Korea, or Iraq—I don’t think the United States would be terribly receptive. Isn’t it obvious that moralism is not an appropriate governing philosophy for the United States? Isn’t it akin to a state religion?

Rice calls the president “intuitive.” Intuition is the act of knowing without the use of rational processes. Philosopher Henri Bergson, who defends intuition as a viable method of knowing, speaks of an “intellectual sympathy” by which we may acquire knowledge.2 But I suspect that such intellectual sympathy is not what Rice is referring to when she says Bush is intuitive. Bush’s intuition appears to spring from his Christianity, his Bible, and the like-minded people with whom he surrounds himself. Additionally, intuition alone is obviously not enough; it must be balanced by logic, by the scientific method. Where is that balance in Bush’s words and actions? Indeed, I don’t think the president would care to fly in a plane built by intuition, yet he is running the government by it.

While cogent arguments can be made in defense of moralism and intuition, it is not apparent that Bush subscribes to them. Take, for instance, James Rachels’s Elements of Moral Philosophy, in which Rachels argues that there is a core set of values that are common to all societies. These values, according to Rachels, are (1) we should care for children; (2) we should tell the truth; and (3) we should not murder. Setting veracity aside, it is clear that Bush’s priorities do not include caring for children or avoiding murder. What kind of moralism, then, is he a proponent of? No wonder a country like France, with its rich intellectual history, is baffled and alienated by Bush and his moralizing.

Interestingly, Bush (in an interview with Bob Woodward for Bush at War) chose the word instincts over intuition, saying, “I can only just go by my instincts.” American Heritage Dictionary tells us that instincts are an innate aspect of behavior that are complex, unlearned, and normally adaptive; an instinct is also a powerful impulse or motivation. Bush asserts that his instincts are all he has to go by; apparently he has no faith in the human capacity to reason.

There has been and continues to be doubt as to whether Bush has the intellect to be a good president. But intellect is just one point of concern; what about curiosity, open-mindedness, and maturity? The ability for self-reflection? When discussing his past, Bush implies that his boyhood ended around age forty. His most difficult decision, he told a reporter when campaigning, was deciding to get married. Presumably the presidency has offered him a plethora of decision-making dilemmas that far outweigh the conundrum of whether or not to tie the knot. And I do hope—perhaps futilely, but hope is about all I have until the next election—that he might come to understand that life is complex and colored in shades of gray, and that his beliefs are not true for everyone, everywhere. Maturity, like life, is not a destination but a journey; keep on trucking, Mr. President.


1. Nicolas Lemann, “Without a Doubt: Has Condoleeza Rice Changed George W. Bush, or Has He Changed Her?” New Yorker, October 14 and 21, 2002: 164–79.

2. Gerald W. Eichhoefer, Enduring Issues in Philosophy (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1995).

3. Ibid.

Norene Kelly is a freelance writer currently working on a memoir. She has published psychology research, taught English in Papua New Guinea, and worked in the legal profession.

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