A Philosopher's Blog

Corporations as People

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2011
Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

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Due to some oversight in my education, I had read various philosophical accounts of person hood before I was exposed to the seemingly absurd notion that corporations are persons. Of course, corporations are legally persons-they would generally fail to meet most philosophical definitions of person. Being a legal person is, as might be imagined, rather different from being a person in the philosophical sense. Philosophical accounts of what it is to be a person are generally subject to rather demanding criticisms based on intuitions, logic and so forth. In the case of legal persons, this seems to be largely a matter of getting a law or ruling that says that X is a legal person. There is, as far as I know, no requirement that such a law be well founded, well argued or even intuitively plausible. In theory, then, anything could be made into a legal person-subject to the whims of voters, lawyers or judges.

While I have argued elsewhere that corporations should not be considered persons, I am going to (at least for the sake of this short essay) reverse my usual view and instead say that the person hood of corporations should be embraced. They should be regarded as persons like any other person and accorded to full moral and legal status as persons (including rights, duties and obligations).

This would, on the face of it, entail that corporations should be treated just like any other person for tax purposes. After all, for me to fall under special tax laws because I am a Mohawk-French-English American would seem unfair to other Americans. Likewise, the fact that someone is a corporate-American (no doubt with multiple citizenships) should not thus entitle them to special treatment in this regard. As such, if a corporation really is a person, then they should fill out the standard tax forms and be entitled only to the standard deductions and so on. Alternatively, we should all receive the same tax (and other legal) rights as the corporation-Americans (or corporation-Australians or whatever). Given the benefits corporation receive, the rest of us would seem to be second class people in comparison. This seems to be wrong.

It might be replied that corporations, the legal people,  are special and thus entitled to benefits that lesser “meaty people” are not entitled to. This would seem to be a rather hateful sort of discrimination against us meaties in favor of the legalies. Then again, it could be accepted that the corporation is merely a legal fiction that is perpetuated because of its benefits to certain people (someone would need to break the news to Mitt Romney, though).

This view would also seem to entail that corporations would need to be citizens and thus entitled to all the benefits and responsibilities. To deny corporation-Americans the right to vote would seem to be a gross violation of their person hood. They should also be obligated to serve on juries, to register for selective service (well, at least the male corporations), and they should be counted in the census. There is, of course, the obvious problem of how the corporation-person would actually engage in voting or serve on the jury. After all, unlike other persons, the corporation person seems to have no actual nexus of person hood that could be in a specific location. There is also the problem that the corporation-person cannot actually think, talk, or write-unless it is accepted that it takes possession of employees and speaks through them. If so, the corporation could thus send a possessed member to vote, to serve on the jury or to serve in the military if it is drafted in times of war. Or perhaps the whole entity is the corporation-a collective person. In that case, the whole thing would seem to be the person. This would make the jury room rather crowded, should a corporation get summoned for duty.

It might be replied that this is all rather silly. Corporations are not some sort of mind that can possess individuals (as the gods were said to possess the oracles at Delphi) nor are they a collective mind composed of the people that work for them and the things they own. After all corporations have no minds, no personalities, no feelings, no thoughts, no beliefs, no desires, no perceptions, no life and so on. There would seem to be, to steal a bit from Nagasena, no self in regards to corporations. This, one might suspect, would seem to entail that they cannot be people-after all, nothing cannot be a person. Then again, perhaps it is wisest to again take them to be mere legal fictions rather than people in any meaningful sense. This would, of course, include granting them constitutional rights on the basis of being actual people.

However, I am committed to trying to treat corporations as people. Perhaps they can be treated as people in terms of their moral status and moral obligations. Of course, if they are morally people, then this would seem to have some interesting implications for moral theories. Since corporations apparently cannot possess virtues, then virtue theory would be out as a moral theory. The same would also apply to many forms of utilitarianism. Since, for example, corporations do not feel pleasure or pain, they would not count morally, so these theories would need to be rejected. Kant’s theory would also be right out-his account of persons and the role they play in morality would be completely incompatible with the corporation-person.  Of course, there is always the option of arguing that there are persons and there are corporation-people. They are both persons, but different sort of persons in fundamental ways. So different that one might suspect that corporations are not people.

I will be writing more about taking corporations to be people in the moral sense.

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18 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on November 21, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I think the point is that a corporation can be liable and be sued as if it were a person.

    • anon said, on November 21, 2011 at 9:28 am

      A corporation cannot go to jail.

      Corporations can create new corporations (like having a child) which then they own (do you beleive slavery should be allowed?). They can sell corporations they own to others (I cannot sell my child to somebody else). Corporations can buy other corporations (can you buy other people?) and then disband them (can you legally get away with killing somebody, while NOT in self defense). Companies can also merge with other corporations and leave one remaining corporation (people cannot merge with others and end up with only a single person).

      No person can sell shares of his/her self as can a corporation. (as far as I know, you can only sell debt in yourself, not ownership)

      No person can physically be present in multiple countries throughout the world at the same time as can a corporation.

      • magus71 said, on November 22, 2011 at 3:32 am

        A race is not a person either, so why should different races receive different benefits from the government?

        You should address this, too, Mike. Is a race a person? Race’s are treated as people in our system.

        • anon said, on November 22, 2011 at 10:38 am

          Where is race treated as a person?

          • magus71 said, on November 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

            In my estimate, when an entire race is given privileged over old misdeeds, that race is being treated as person, as if it is a person who was wronged by another person and is thus owed civil recompense.


            • magus71 said, on November 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

              * privileges*

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 22, 2011 at 5:37 pm

              I’d say that such situations treat race as a property that forms a group membership rather than taking race itself to be a distinct person.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

          A race is not a person, except in those sci-fi cases in which the entire race is, in fact, a single person.

          Special treatment based on race is not based on assigning those privileges/advantages to the race as a single person. Rather, people who have the property of being of that race get those advantages. To use an analogy, being the member of a club can give you privileges, but the club itself would not be a person (unless it was a corporation as well).

          I’m against race and gender based artificial advantages.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm

      I’m generally fine with many aspects of the legal fiction of corporate person hood, although I would prefer that there just be specific laws for these things rather than the lazy approach of saying they are people.

      Were I take issue is when corporations get the rights of people that should be limited to actual people, such as freedom of speech. Naturally, the people in the corporation should have that right-but we do not need a legal fiction of the corporate person for this.

      • wtp said, on November 22, 2011 at 8:28 am

        Why? If two, three, four, or five people form an association to accomplish a task, why should their right to speak through that association be less than the rights they hold as individuals? From what I’ve read of what you’ve written you seem more concerned about how this has manifested itself than you are concerned about the rights of the individuals who make up these associations. Nor do you make much effort to explore the consequences of restricting these rights. While I’m not one to consider strict utilitarianism as an ideal, it would seem to be worth giving a lot more thoughtful consideration to the unintended consequences of alternative paths. I notice you title this “Corporations as People”, but philosophically isn’t the issue “Entities as People”? Would not churches, unions, service organizations, and others have their well being put in jeopardy by the sort of changes you suggest? By using “Corporations” as a fall guy (oops, there’s that personhood thing again) this is far more political than philosophical.

        I don’t like unions, but I do respect the right of workers to unite in an organization that speaks for them. What I object to is they have in many areas (non-right-to-work states) become monopolies of labor and their being exempt from the kind of scrutiny we apply to such monopolies, but that’s another issue.

        • anon said, on November 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

          The individuals of a group are still people and can use their rights to promote an issue. A group of persons does not form a new person.

          I believe that churches, unions, service organizations, and other such entities that have no feelings or beliefs (mission statemets are projections from the people who created the entity, not of the entity itself) have no well being. People can live without any of those things but those things cannot “live” without people.

          LOL @ wtp, you do realize that unions are corporations right? Guess not.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 22, 2011 at 5:35 pm

          Having rights as part of a collective is distinct from the collective being a person. Since I rather like John Locke’s theory, I am rather fond of the idea of rights. I even accept that we can talk about collective rights. However, I make a distinction between collective rights and a collective person. A collective derives its rights from the rights of the members (so, for example, someone can speak on behalf of the members of my track club and claim free speech rights, but this does not require that GWTC is a person).

          I am also against the misdeeds that can occur in unions.

  2. wtp said, on November 21, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Fallacy right off the bat: “notion that corporations are persons”. Where is it written that they ARE persons? There are numerous legal differences between “persons” and corporations. They are entities with similar rights and responsibilities derived from the undeniable fact that they are made up of individual persons. A fact that much lefty ideology chooses to ignore when it suits their rhetorical purposes. You dive full in to this issue without giving serious consideration to the rights of people to band together to form organizations, let alone the tremendous positive impact that this has had on economic growth and well being of society.

    You start this article with a glaring fallacy, spin it into a straw man, then argue that. Of course, in the LaBossierian world fallacies are only what Mike calls fantasies. Same for straw men, yadda-yadda-yadda. Ahhh, re-reading this I see the Master’s out. “Notion”. Of course it’s not written, it’s a “notion”. Mike, this is typical of your weasel reasoning.

    • wtp said, on November 21, 2011 at 11:17 am

      Just re-reading this and notice I said “fantasies” in stead of “fallacies”. For a moment there, I could stand on my head, close one eye and squint real hard to make that sound more relevant. Alas, I’ve run out of time.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Corporations as persons is a matter of law-just Google that. In any case, if I were wrong I would be making a factual error.

      Sure, the individuals who make up corporations are people and they thus have the rights of person. But to say “X is composed of people, so X is a person” would be the fallacy of composition.

      I do appreciate your devotion to attacking me. As Magus will confirm, I’m all about fighting stuff.

      • wtp said, on November 22, 2011 at 8:47 am

        No they are not. In certain situations as defined by the courts they are deemed to have the same rights as people but they are not people in every regard. They have the same rights to make contracts and have those contracts upheld by the courts in the same manner as people. Do you object to this? There are many other points to consider than I have time for right now. Reading much of what you write, I don’t see where you could possibly be doing much research into opposing points of view. You only seem to look deep enough to justify your position and stop there. I notice someone else here (TJ?) made this or some similar observation a couple months ago.

        As for my “devotion to attacking” you, you need to get thicker skin. It’s not YOU I am attacking, it’s this weak thinking that passes itself off as Philosophy. I noticed over on TPM (as I am now traveling and can access the site) your friend Jeremy really got himself into quite a fight over, ironically enough, “civility” which lead me to some New Atheist sites. Now this stuff is nasty:


        Found it rather amusing to see such vitriol being spewed by two sides, neither of which would I agree. Do like the term “pearl clutching”, though. Fits old Jeremy to a T.

        • wtp said, on November 22, 2011 at 8:50 am

          “led” not “lead”…I blame Led Zeppelin for this…

  3. O.D. Chapoton said, on November 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Your comments on corporations as people omits discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. I think that decision is one of the most significant applications of this question of whether a corporation should be treated as a person since it allows individuals to sidestep limits on political contributions simply by forming a corporation to make the contribution. Apparently this was a contentious decision among the Supreme Court justices. decided 5 – 4 and resulting in lengthy dissenting opinions.

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