Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

In Peril II: The Amazon Connection

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 30, 2010

Yesterday’s In Depth Analysis (In Peril of Being Wrong) explored reader complaints about my exposition of the Church’s position on contraception. Another type of problem, which surfaced around the same time, is represented by our connection with Amazon, which some readers have argued should be severed.

What raised this issue was the news coverage of the sale through Amazon of a book on pedophilia (which has since been removed). Some readers thought that pedophilia merited special attention, while for others the controversy simply made them aware that Amazon carries products which undermine Catholic moral teaching. It is important to note here that Amazon’s moral status has not changed recently with the pedophilia book; it has always carried many things that conflict with Catholic faith and morals. Still, having just now reached this awareness, a handful of our users have criticized (sometimes with accusations of venality) for continuing to be an Amazon affiliate.

Although guided by firm moral principles, this is, of course, a prudential decision and not a matter of doctrine. Let’s consider an example.

We are all strictly obliged morally to avoid being led into sin by pornography, but the question of how much or how little we may interact with firms that, among other things, market pornography is a matter for prudent judgment. Now, if a store were to come into existence for the purpose of selling pornography, but it also carried a few unobjectionable items, most good Christians would conclude that they should not shop at this store.

It is not that purchasing, say, a book on mountain climbing from this store would be an immoral act. But under most circumstances we would see a very close connection between our purchase and the success of this store’s pornographic mission (not to mention the fact that we would not want to be seen in the store). Even if our failure to purchase from the store would not much affect its bottom line, we know that there are many alternatives for purchasing books on mountain climbing, and most of us would judge that making our purchases at this store would render our cooperation with evil too close for comfort.

But now let us consider the case of a power company, which we find provides power to the local abortion mill, without which the abortionist could not kill babies. Most good Christians would not cease to do business with the power company. Alternative sources of power are available, but they are very difficult to implement. Moreover, we know beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that we cannot by any action we might take induce the power company to deny power to the abortion clinic.

However, the chief reason for the difference in our decision, I submit, is that the power company is a universal provider of its service. It does not exist primarily to supply power to abortion clinics. It exists to supply power to everybody, without reference to moral criteria. Consequently, all things considered, we do not find that paying our electric bill results in a cooperation with evil that is too close for comfort.

Thousands of examples could be given at every degree of cooperation with evil between the pornography store and the power company. And in thinking about these examples, we begin to realize that remote cooperation with evil is an inescapable fact of human life, especially in complex, interconnected societies. In other words, remote cooperation with evil is a fact or condition which it is absolutely impossible to avoid completely. As I said earlier, as long as we avoid direct participation in evil, it is a matter for prudence to determine how much remote cooperation we should strive to eliminate, and how much we should accept as part and parcel of human life. Among the questions that must be answered with prudence, for example, is whether we should pay taxes to a government which sometimes supports immoral programs and policies.

One of the key factors in making our prudential decisions will be the factor of whether an organization is particularly devoted to some evil or whether it is involved in it only by reason of the universality of the service it provides. Other factors include the impact of our participation on the organization in question, the good that we can do in using it, the cost to ourselves in not using it, and the alternatives available.

With respect to the current case, it is clear that Amazon is a universal store. Its purpose is to enable everybody to sell everything in a common marketplace, without moral judgment or censorship. It provides its service to the good and the bad alike. Its acceptance of a product in its marketplace does not constitute an endorsement. In fact, it is precisely this universal characteristic of Amazon that has enabled it to become a household name, a commercial institution which nearly everybody uses for both selling and purchasing.

Without this universal character, some bad people would not be able to market their wares effectively, but neither would countless good people and organizations be able to market good things effectively, nor could they take advantage of Amazon’s powerful economic engine to raise funds for their more noble purposes. Thus Amazon, like the power company, can be used for good or ill. Christians, of course, if they use it at all, must use it for good.

Now what if there were an alternative to Amazon with these three characteristics: (1) A fairly universal store; (2) A powerful economic engine; and (3) A moral force which prohibited the sale of anything that conflicts with Catholic faith and morals? Clearly, we would drop Amazon and affiliate with this other organization instead. But, of course, not only is there nothing else like Amazon, but it is impossible in our culture that a doctrinally and morally sound Amazon could exist. The necessary universality is impossible to achieve within these restrictions.

As a matter of prudence, therefore, we judge that the remote cooperation with evil which attends the use of Amazon is similar to that which attends the use of other universal organizations characteristic of our morally diverse culture—government, power companies, telephone companies, hospitals, major media outlets, public transportation systems, drug store chains, supermarkets (ah, the check-out aisles!) and so on.

Some smaller Christian apostolates have asked our opinion on this matter. We give it freely and without reserve: It is morally permissible for Christians to buy from, sell through, and affiliate with Amazon in order to further their own sound and noble purposes, without concern that Amazon’s services are also open to those whose morality is unsound and whose purposes are ignoble. It is a hazard of the Christian life that one must make prudential judgments. We stand by ours.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 02, 2010 12:52 AM ET USA

    I'll admit, I heard about the story of the pedophile book and began wondering. However, I'm forced to concur with your assessment, Mr. Mirus. For all that I'd prefer a Catholic version of Amazon, I don't know of any. Perhaps we ought to pray for Amazon's Board of Directors and screening personnel instead?

  • Posted by: klimczak368471 - Dec. 01, 2010 11:58 PM ET USA

    Universal market selling pornography??? SHOULD WE BE A PARTNER TO THAT? ARE THERE CATHOLIC BOOK STORES???

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Dec. 01, 2010 5:58 PM ET USA

    Please do NOT end the association with Amazon. Should Catholics refuse to go to Staples for photocopying because Staples has and will again print pro-abortion flyers?

  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 01, 2010 10:01 AM ET USA

    For the same reason, Catholics should post book reviews, including some of the points of the books, at Amazon -- especially of Catholic books that deserve a favorable review. Many people could be moved toward or in the Catholic faith by a short summary of good Catholic books.

  • Posted by: man961983010 - Dec. 01, 2010 9:45 AM ET USA

    I agree with you completely in Amazon being a universal market and that there is no issue with you or any of us being associated with it -- your example of the power company was very good. There are so many good spiritual pieces you do, I would hope you can turn back to them now, where I need the most work. Thanks for your help on this.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Nov. 30, 2010 8:28 PM ET USA

    Nice try, but this doesn't really fly...