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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