Corporate personhood is the idea that although corporations are not natural people, they are legal people, and as such, they are legally afforded the rights that a natural person has where applicable. This is an interesting concept because at the end of the day, corporations are just a collection of people (and money). Because of this, it’s inevitable that we should have to consider what they should be allowed to do and what limitations can be placed on them. I like Kent Greenfield’s point that corporations should be more like people because it feels like a natural move to make. And if the contention surrounding corporate personhood is a result of questions of what they ought to do and what’s fair, the human aspect would help keep that in perspective in contrast to the inherent profit-driven motivations of corporations themselves. The debates about corporations having freedom of speech and freedom of religion seem to be just another attempt to control what other people say and do, which really is only an issue when you disagree with what they’re saying and doing. If at the end of the day, corporations are run by people, it’s hard for me to see how you can separate the two and ask (or legally force) people to do things that go against their personal beliefs, especially if their company is not public. It is troubling that the legal precedence for this idea was founded on a series of lies and untruths that were never corrected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea itself is a bad one.
In the case of IBM’s involvement in Nazi Germany, I think it was an unethical act on the company’s part. We spent the beginning of the semester discussing how technology developers are ethically responsible for considering the implications of their creations, but even if this wasn’t taken into account, IBM is culpable because they knew what their products were being used for, and they actively continued to support Nazi efforts by maintaining the machines and providing materials and means for so many people to be unjustly killed. Even though I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe IBM didn’t know what it was getting into initially with the creation of the census system, the company had multiple chances to step away after that when things escalated.
From a Catholic perspective, corporations should definitely refrain from doing business with immoral/unethical organizations and people. As Catholics, we are supposed to avoid scandal. This means not only scandal in the sense of committing sins but also scandal as defined by leading others to believe that something immoral or sinful is okay even if you don’t actually believe it’s okay and you never committed the sin yourself as Father Mike Schmitz describes it. Therefore, even if a company does not directly and actively commit the immoral and unethical acts themselves, doing business with immoral or unethical organizations and people can lead to scandal because others may believe that what they’re doing is okay since you didn’t find anything wrong with it that would cause you to stop doing business with them.
Going back to the idea of corporate personhood, it would seem foolish to give corporations the same legal status as individual natural persons without also placing the limitations on corporations that are placed on individuals. As individuals, we are not allowed to kill or steal or do things of this nature, but the law doesn’t necessarily punish all unethical behavior and it doesn’t require anyone to fully behave ethically. I don’t think it’s possible to expect or force corporations to have the same ethical obligations and responsibilities as individuals do because they are not exactly the same by nature. However, it is important to put checks on corporations because they can have a lot of power and influence on many people, and if it was left up to the corporations to decide, they probably wouldn’t always make the ethical choice because it could result in backlash or the corporation’s death. As much as the idealist in me would like everyone and all corporations to always make good decisions, the reality is that this likely wouldn’t happen on its own.