Sunday 8 January 2012
@AfiaAslam raised a question on twitter whether it is ethical to preserve diaries after the death of their writers. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
While some may say that a diary is, by default, meant to be for author's eyes only, the situation is not entirely so clear in real life, where people attach different degrees of privacy to their diaries. Some may wish to guard them obsessively, others may not be so averse to their being read, especially after they are dead. In situations where the wishes of the author are not known, and in the absence of any clues that may indicate what the author would have preferred, or if such a desire is not evident through the contents of the diary, and the material in the diary is not of a personal and sensitive nature, then I do not see any reason why it should constitute a moral violation.
If the writer had expressed a desire that the contents of the diary be kept private and/or the material in the diary is of a personal and sensitive nature, then the ethical thing would be to honor that wish.
However, if the contents of the diary are of potentially great literary worth (such as Kafka's or Plath's) then it would put the custodian in a utilitarian dilemma, where he would have to weigh respecting the wishes of the deceased against benefitting humanity with the work of a literary genius. If the work is sufficiently valuable, one may treat the wishes of the author as we treat their self-destructive tendencies while they are alive — that is, just as we think it morally justified to attempt to save a man from killing himself, we may consider it morally justified to save a literary masterpiece from destruction.