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Paul Bernardo on Amazon

Are companies required to bridge the gap between morality and legality?

Image credit: amazon.com
Image credit: amazon.com

Convicted murderer Paul Bernardo made headlines this month when it became known that he had self-published a fictional e-book. The novel, titled A MAD World Order, is an allegedly violent thriller involving Mexican drug cartels and Russian agents, and became available for purchase on Amazon.com.

It was a story that called into the question the limits of legality, morality, and taste – a conversation that continues, despite Amazon’s decision to pull the e-book from its store last week after mounting public pressure and online petitions.

The lawyer for Bernardo’s victims’ families, Tim Danson, asked Amazon to remove the e-book almost immediately, and public opinion quickly aligned with Danson against the retailer. Amazon did not immediately respond to the furor, however, either by pulling the book when the story broke, or by issuing a statement on the matter. The CBC reports that during the seller’s intentional silence, Bernardo’s book made it to the status of “#1 Best Seller” in Amazon’s war fiction section.

This isn’t the first time that Amazon has been accused of privileging from profits in ethically dubious situations. Last year, the site came under fire for selling Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child, a faith-based guide to parenting that advocated for physical punishment—which had been linked to the deaths of three children. Amazon did not remove the item from its website, and while the controversy exploded in its comments section, the guide continues to sell on the website – though the book’s unpopularity is signalled by its current two-star rating.

Amazon does not legally endorse the opinions and views of the items it sells; indeed, the opposite is true: we want booksellers to be neutral in order to provide an open platform for all opinions, at least in theory. Anything else would be untenable in a civil society where free speech is valued.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the petition to stop Amazon from selling Bernardo’s thriller differed from the petition against the Pearls in one key respect: namely, that the author is currently imprisoned for being found guilty of violent crimes.

Bernardo is certainly legally allowed to write and publish from prison—but does the world’s largest bookseller have a responsibility to consider whose voices it chooses to include on its lucrative and potentially influential platform? That was the question that was raised by Amazon’s decision to give Bernardo’s novel space on its site – and it raises broader issues of whether or not companies owe duties to the communities they serve beyond those which are strictly legal.

It’s not clear if Danson’s objection rested on the violent subject matter of the novel, or if the issue of violence is merely peripheral. Danson objected to Bernardo being able to sell on Amazon—simultaneously gaining revenue and affecting the public’s perception of him in advance of his parole request—period. Whichever the case may be, Danson readily ceded that Amazon had a legal right to sell the book, but that there was ethical dimension to the situation that the retailer purposely overlooked.

Danson called upon the image of the victims’ families being forced to go about their business, as their daughters’ killer’s novel became a topic of casual watercooler conversation. The fact that the book includes violent topics and includes, according to Danson, “egregious” amounts of violent content, is an aggravating issue.

The book is fictional, however, and it’s certainly not as jaw-droppingly galling as “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer,” a what-if teaser of a book ghostwritten by Pablo Fenjves, with O.J. Simpson’s name slapped on as byline in a transparent money-making ploy. That book is a screamingly obvious attempt to capitalize on Simpson’s status as a maybe-murderer, though Simpson was, of course, a free man when he signed on to the deal. Amazon currently carries “If I Did It” in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Is Bernardo’s foray into mediocre fiction the price we pay for defending an open society, or could we recognize Bernardo’s right to free speech while simultaneously recognizing his place as an Amazon “#1 Best Seller” as morally repugnant and tasteless, and asking Amazon to put a stop to it? Certainly, the reality that Amazon cannot be held legally responsible for the book’s content or even existence is both a right that the company enjoys as well as a shield against criticism. Amazon is “merely” a company, albeit the largest retailer in the world; does it have a duty to anything other than lucre?

What do we do when moral outrage cannot be articulated in legal terms? Or is this hand wringing about poor taste and insensitivity to Bernardo’s victims interfering with Bernardo’s real rights, no matter how crudely he’s chosen to exercise them? Practically speaking, Bernardo’s book seems to have done little to change his public reputation—and Danson observes that it likely will erase his (already slight) chance of receiving day parole in Toronto. If that is the case, then perhaps in this instance Bernardo has hurt himself even more than he has hurt his victims’ families, especially now that the e-book has been removed from Amazon.

This is a matter of taste, not law—but does Amazon have a duty to respond to issues of taste? More to the point, was Amazon’s decision to drop the book a considered reflection on what is or isn’t appropriate and respectful? Or was it a simple reaction to public pressure? If Amazon publishes another book under similar circumstances, but there happens to be no public outcry, what then? It’s a sobering thought that public pressure might be the only mechanism to enforce ethical corporate behaviour. It is a timely reminder that as it stands, most companies have no duties to the communities they are a part of, though they spend significant time and effort encouraging us to believe that they do. It is unlikely that Amazon’s decision to pull Bernardo’s book will prevent the company from future forays into ethically dubious areas.