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Do we really want Amazon policing authors?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Should a bookseller help a convicted murderer and rapist earn a living? In brief: yes. It’s not an appealing conclusion, so sold your nose, and listen to the reasons.

Amazon apparently disagrees with me, or is at least willing to bow to public pressure on the matter. The company has apparently <a href=”http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/paul-bernardo-book-disappears-1.3319838″>removing an ebook</a> apparently written by convicted Canadian killer and rapist <a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bernardo”>Paul Bernardo</a> from its website.

Amazon came <a href=”http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/it-s-wrong-amazon-under-fire-for-e-book-attributed-to-paul-bernardo-1.2657084″>under fire</a> last week for selling the ebook. The book, importantly, is not about Bernardo’s own criminal exploits &mdash; he’s not profiting off his own crimes. Rather, the book is supposedly a political thriller of some sort. But many people were far from thrilled to see the widely-despised convict publishing at all.

Why should Amazon distribute Bernardo’s book? Some commentators have mentioned the need to protect free speech: Bernardo is a convict, but even convicts retain fundamental rights. But free speech is a red herring in this context. Amazon would be <i>within its rights</i> not to publish Bernardo’s book. No one has a right to be published. That’s not what the right to “free speech” implies. The right to free speech simply means that when you attempt to speak (or write) no one may rightly take action to forcibly stop you from speaking or writing.

So Amazon is within their rights to stop selling the book, but they are still wrong to do so.

Consider the precedent Amazon is setting here. For the sake of consistency, we need to realize that Amazon is now effectively claiming the right &mdash; and perhaps the obligation &mdash; to vet every author prior to agreeing to sell his or her book. And in doing so, what principles should they apply? Should all murderers be excluded, or only murderer-rapists like Bernardo? Or all criminals? How about war criminals. That’s a category that (ethically if not legally) includes a number of past heads of state. Should Amazon sell CDs by rappers with criminal convictions? And so on.

For what it’s worth, Amazon currently sells books by a number of <em>other</em> serial killers and mass murderers, including the likes of John Wayne Gacy, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and the most infamous mass murderer of all time, Adolf Hitler.

The argument for a nonjudgmental approach by Amazon is strengthened by the fact that it’s <em>Amazon</em>, in particular, that we’re talking about. Amazon’s dominant position in both book publishing and book selling means that it would be incredibly dangerous for the company to start picking and choosing, on moral grounds, which authors it chooses to work with. We, the public, should not want Amazon to help itself to that kind of moral authority.

Amazon should reverse its decision, and go back to selling Bernardo’s book. And we should respect that decision. Not because we think Paul Bernardo is especially worthy (or even, frankly, minimally worthy). The question isn’t who <em>he</em> is, but who <em>we</em> are.



Chris MacDonald

Chris MacDonald is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary's University (Halifax, Canada). He is also Coordinator of SMU's M.A. Programme in Philosophy and he runs the The Business Ethics Blog.


CATEGORIES: +english | +Research Institutes | Business Ethics Blog by Prof. Chris MacDonald | Canada | Newsflash


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