Blog Post 11: Corporate Conscience

Corporate person hood is giving the same rights to a company as you would to a person, in both the eyes of the law and morally. In legal terms, corporate person hood is when “for-profit corporations are entities that possess legal interests and a legal identity of their own—one separate and distinct from their shareholders”. Socially and morally, this is a little bit more difficult to define. It means we as a society recognize corporations and their actions to be of equivalent status as those undertaken by people. If we buy into corporate person hood, it requires that corporations have the same ethical responsibilities that people do. Choosing to give corporations person hood means they are treated as people in all aspects. They take on the personal, social, and legal responsibilities that a citizen would.

I believe that IBM was acting in an unethical manner by dealing with the Nazis. I should preface this by saying I am a proponent of corporate person hood. Corporations and employees have a mnemonic relationship where people shape a corporation and the corporation shapes people in a cyclic manner. It’s like a feedback loop of thought between individuals and a collective conscience of the company. So while a corporation may not be a person, treating corporations in any other manner than a person denies this cyclic link. Corporate person hood is necessary because of the fact that people hold responsibility to shape corporations, even though a corporation may be exerting a shaping influence on them. Although it is impossible for humans to think independently of the thought environment surrounding them, a corporation is still an extension of human action. This requires corporations to be treated as people would be.

Proponents against corporate person hood might argue that corporations don’t have the same rights as people, because as president Obama says “Corporations aren’t people. People are people.” While this is certainly a true statement, it also hints at a flawed understanding of the social structure in corporations. It disembodies a corporation from the people that make it up, ignoring the influence people have on corporations. This is to deny one of the two links of influence in a corporate social structure. It treats corporations as a naturalist phenomena against which average humans must struggle. The underlying reason for the movement to strip corporations of their person hood is that while legally we have chosen to give corporations person hood, often corporations fail to uphold the moral responsibilities that are required when holding this status. Because of the inextricable connection between human and corporation, it is impossible to divorce moral culpability of employee from corporation. Like a social sin, all share in the blame for unethical actions taken by a larger community they participate in. Consequently, corporations must be held to their moral responsibility by actions of their employees as well as through the law.

An argument against corporate person hood would be the lack of influence employees can have on a corporation. In other words, the naturalist view point is correct because there is no link of people influencing corporations. This might be a more reasonable argument for a company like Walmart, but in most tech companies, this doesn’t hold much water, so I’ll leave out discussion of that case. It’s hard to argue that employees at Google or Facebook aren’t influencing the company either through design decisions, discussion among employees, or direct high level decision making power. While it may not feel like a lot of power, it still is influence in one form or another on culture and business decisions.

If corporate person hood is to be believed, companies have an obligation to take reasonable measures to limit misuse of the fruits of their labor just as individuals have an obligation not to work towards evil means. Because the Nazis clearly had evil intentions, it was wrong of IBM to provide material support.

  • bmarin
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