Blogs & Comment

Do we really want Amazon policing authors?

Being disgusted by Paul Bernardo’s crimes still may not mean we want Amazon making judgments on our behalf as citizens

Interior of an warehouse

Inside an Amazon warehouse. Amazon’s huge scale should make us wary of allowing it to make moral judgments on our behalf. (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty)

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

Amazon apparently disagrees with me, or is at least bowing to public pressure on the matter. The company has removed an ebook, apparently written by convicted murderer Paul Bernardo, from its website.

Amazon came under fire last week for selling the ebook. The book, it’s important to note, is not about Bernardo’s own crimes; rather, the book is supposedly a political thriller of some sort. But many people were dismayed to see a widely-despised murderer 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 certain fundamental rights. But free speech is a red herring in this context. Amazon is within its rights not to distribute Bernardo’s book, and is exercising those rights. No one has a right to be published. That’s not what “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 doing so.

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—and perhaps the obligation—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? 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 famous heads of state.

For what it’s worth, Amazon currently sells books by a number of other 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 Amazon, 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 worthy of our attention. The question isn’t who he is, but who we are.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.