Companies & Industries

O.J. Ethics


You have a right to buy If I Did It…but it's not right to buy it. And the publisher had a right to go ahead with the book, but that wasn't ethical, either

After a delay of almost a year, you now have an opportunity to buy a copy of O.J. Simpson's book If I Did It.

You have a right to buy it. But you shouldn't. This is an immoral book that should never have seen the light of day.

Beaufort Books, a small, independent publisher, had a legal right to publish If I Did It, but it was wrong for them to do so.

The Price for a Free Society

How is it possible that we can have a right to do something that is wrong? Who is to say that this book, or anything for that matter, is immoral? I'll explain.

Living in a free market economy means that, except in extreme circumstances, merchants are entitled to offer whatever goods and services they please, and consumers are free to decide what they want to purchase and what they wish to do without. Not everyone is able to buy what they'd like, and most consumers will find something objectionable in the marketplace. However, unless a product or service is justifiably illegal (e.g., child pornography, heroin, or pirated movies), consumers are obliged to put up with the sale of material that they might find offensive, disgusting, off-putting, or immoral. A broad level of tolerance is the price we must pay for living in a free society.

Still, having the right to buy something does not mean that it is right to do it, and simply because it is legal to do something doesn't mean that it's ethical to do it. For example, you are not breaking any law by lying to your spouse, but you shouldn't do so. You have a right to eat junk food three times a day, but a steady diet of hamburgers, fries, and milk shakes is harmful, so you ought not to eat this way. With rights come responsibilities (BusinessWeek.com, 8/2/07), and two of the central responsibilities human beings have is to do no harm and to treat others with respect (BusinessWeek.com, 1/25/07).

Murdoch Publicly Apologized

Here's why it would be wrong to buy a copy of what the family of Ron Goldman, one of Simpson's murder victims, is calling "the killer's confession":

The claim that it's immoral to buy the Simpson book was uncontroversial last year when HarperCollins, a division of News Corp. (NWS), attempted to publish the book under Judith Regan's imprint there. The idea that a company would profit by such a lurid spectacle provoked such outrage that Regan was fired, HarperCollins withdrew the book, and News Corp. President Rupert Murdoch issued a public apology for his company's involvement in the whole affair.

Since then, however, a Florida bankruptcy court awarded the Goldman family the rights to the book, and in an astonishing about-face from its original position, the family has now sanctioned publication. The book now includes a 14,000-word commentary, along with a redesigned cover that appears to make the title look like I Did It because the word "If" is almost impossible to see. The family has also changed the name of the author to "the killer."

Gruesome Details for All to See

Surely now that a portion of the proceeds of the book are going not to Simpson but to a foundation established in Ron Goldman's name, it would not only be permissible to buy the book; it would be a good thing to do. Right?

Wrong.

The content of the book itself is unaltered from the way it would have appeared last year had HarperCollins gone through with its plans. The gruesome details of the night of the murder are there for all, including the two children of one of the victims, to see. If I Did It is not a legal document, and it does not even purport to be the truth. It is exploitation masquerading as a significant literary event, and its mere existence is a blight on civilized society. To buy it is to contribute to the degradation of our culture, our dignity, and our own souls. This is why Beaufort Books did the wrong thing by publishing it, even though they had a right to do so. This is also why you ought not to buy it, even though you are entitled to.

Boycott Advocated by Denise Brown

The Ron Goldman Foundation for Justice is one of many worthy nonprofit organizations to which we can and should contribute, but not in this way.

The fact that Denise Brown, the sister of Simpson's other victim, Nicole Brown Simpson, has called for a boycott of this book is another reason why those of us who want to be a force for good, or at least not a force for evil, would do well to reject the opportunity to buy If I Did It.

"But what you're calling for is censorship!" some may say.

Marketplace of Ideas

Not at all. Censorship occurs when a government prohibits its citizens from reading, viewing, or listening to anything it deems objectionable. If Congress passed a law barring the publication or purchase of If I Did It, that would be censorship. Citizens who attempt to make a case for why it would be wrong to buy this book are not engaging in censorship. They are legitimately exercising their legal and moral right of free speech, and this is the most patriotic, American, Constitution-loving thing a person can do in this country. That is, along with attempting to make a case for why it would be a good thing to buy this book.

Thus, one of the best ways you can make use of the marketplace of ideas right now is to decide for yourself whether or not you ought to buy O.J. Simpson's book, to justify your decision, and to make your position known.

Let freedom ring!

Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national television shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His “Ask the Ethics Guy!” appears every other week on businessweek.com/managing/.

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