When to Be Amoral
Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray (2009)
So just in the past few days we’ve had two prominent cancellations. In the United States, the publishing house W. W. Norton took a new biography of writer Philip Roth out of print because of sexual assault allegations against its author, Blake Bailey. In the United Kingdom, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which awards Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars, rescinded the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema prize it had awarded to actor Noel Clarke, also because of sexual assault allegations against him.
I won’t go into the nature of the allegations against these two men or how credible they are, because, really, even were they a hundred times worse, and even were they completely true, it still wouldn’t justify these reactions. It was dumb of W. W. Norton and BAFTA to cancel Bailey and Clarke, not because those allegations aren’t serious or because they aren’t credible, but because they aren’t relevant. Like all good publishers, W. W. Norton presumably decides to publish books based on their literary merit and/or their commercial potential, not because of the moral rectitude of their authors. Likewise, BAFTA awards prizes to actors for their acting skill and their contributions to cinema, not for being good people.
Good publishers publish books based on their literary merit and/or their commercial potential, not because of the moral rectitude of their authors.
Should we refuse to recognize a terrible person for his talents and achievements? To help answer this question, consider the converse. Imagine, if you would, a paragon of virtue – devoted to his family, faithful to his friends, and kind to strangers, yet completely hopeless at writing and acting – should people publish his books and give him acting awards? Of course not. When it’s a question of merit, being a wonderful person shouldn’t compensate for a lack of ability, just as being an awful person shouldn’t detract from an abundance of it. Had Hitler’s paintings been good instead of stale and lifeless, they should have pride of place in the world’s best galleries. Like many before me, I tried and failed to get through Mein Kampf, but had it been a work of staggering genius, it should be celebrated, and Hitler’s contribution to literature recognized alongside the tyranny and genocide. Instead, of course, in addition to being a terrible person, he was also a terrible writer.
“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” He’s right, and to that I’d add that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral author; an author is skillful, or he is not. When assessing merit, we should be amoral, and consider only ability. To deny that bad people can be capable of great things, that we can appreciate someone’s work without endorsing him as a person, is to deny real life in all its complexity; it is to remain forever a child.
So give the Devil his due, and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, because a great accomplishment, whether a great book or a great idea or a great performance, is a contribution to the human species. The truth is most books are badly-written, most ideas are uninspired, and most movies are horrible. When we’re fortunate enough to find someone who does what he does well, we shouldn’t begrudge him credit for that, whatever his personal failings. Such people are rare enough as it is.