Since 2010, I’ve been one of the many people frustrated by the idea, protected by law in the USA, that a corporation is a person. The Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 not only reinforced that corporations are people, but also that they are people with free speech. Since the US Supreme Court sees spending money as a form of speech, corporations are thus free to spend as much money as they like on elections. That this is an incredible distortion of democracy is obvious, but that’s only one reason why so many of us are frustrated by it. The book and documentary film The Corporation asks the question “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” and ultimately concludes that a business corporation is a sociopath. Considering that our greatest societal protections are offered to persons, and corporations are potentially dangerous sociopaths who lack the features of persons we would normally protect (e.g., humanness, biological life, etc.), it seems that applying the term “person” to them is a categorical misstep: they get many of the benefits of society with none of the responsibilities, with “corporate responsibility” often serving as little more than a marketing ploy. As such I’ve long been of the opinion that “person” is entirely too good of a title for a corporation, giving them too much power and distorting the relationship between personhood and humanity.
But personhood is not necessarily identical to humanity, though it has long been held by many to be the same thing. The abortion debate centres around the definition of personhood, with the prevailing view being that a fetus, in spite of being human, is not a person until it is physically born. Given the huge variation in the time that a baby can be safely born, the actual moment of birth seems a harshly arbitrary distinction on which to hang the right to life, and our stinginess with the title of “person” in this respect makes the notion of a business corporation as a person rankle even more.
Animals are people too. At least, that’s what I always used to tell my parents when they barred my pets from, say, eating at the dinner table with us or sleeping on my bed. But there is a growing movement to recognize specific animals (e.g., dolphins, whales), and even the natural systems of the planet as a whole, as people. Recognizing the environment as a whole as a morally significant stakeholder is recognizing a form of corporate personhood.
For all of these reasons I’ve been mistaken about railing against corporate personhood in general, but I didn’t recognize it until I read William Cavanaugh’s “Are Corporations People?” in Christian Political Witness. Cavanaugh makes the point that “corporate personhood is central to Christianity” (129), and that the alternative view to corporate personhood is individualism and the competition of the market in both the business and political spheres. He traces the view of corporate personhood from Genesis (Adam is often translated as “humankind”, and God interacts with humans in a corporate fashion throughout the Bible), to the corporate personhood of the Church in the New Testament and Church Fathers, to the corporate personhood of the nation state (which still appears in the form of nationalism), through to the rise of market economies which had the effect of “liberalizing” us from corporate personhood to become individuals who “deal with each other on the basis of contract…rather than as members of a social body” (138). He points out that there is no essential relationship between democracy and free markets: they’re both encouraged by liberalism, but markets do not require democracy to function, with the implication that a market-dominated society is not necessarily free and certainly not necessarily equal. So the absence of corporate personhood in our system actually removes our sense of belonging to a common body, and individualism feeds the competitive market-based systems that exacerbate inequality in society. “If we do not see each other as members or potential members of the same body, we cannot begin to see the political process as a healing process for the weakest of our members” (144). So the problem, then, is not that we might see corporations as people (i.e., moral actors with the ability to speak), but rather that the Citizens United decision privileges business corporations over others (such as the Church, unions, clubs and societies, etc).
What Cavanaugh didn’t touch on at all is the spiritual aspect of corporate people. This is the biggest reason I’m surprised I didn’t catch on to the importance of seeing corporations as people: I’ve been talking about it in other contexts for years! The New Testament notion of Powers and Principalities states that corporations such as churches, governments, and even business corporations, have a spiritual or inner aspect as well as an outward or physical aspect. By attributing a spiritual aspect to a corporate body we affirm it as a spiritual being – a status that many of us probably wouldn’t assign to individual animals even if we were willing to grant them another level of personhood. If corporate bodies are spiritual beings, how can they not be people?
The Church is a corporate person: together, Christians form the body of Christ. We believe that we actually embody Christ in the world, and that we do so more completely and powerfully in a corporate sense than we ever could individually. Cavanaugh refers to patristic thought and quotes Zizioulas to make the point that Christian identity and personhood is actually dependent upon our oneness in Christ, so that “the Eucharist ‘is the reality which makes it possible for us to exist at all’” (134, emphasis original). For Christians, corporate personhood and identity is primary; individual personhood and identity is secondary (at least, ideally). This sets the terms by which the Church interacts with the rest of society (i.e., our politics): “The church’s goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the telos of an economy of love” (145). The Church is to represent a different type of corporation in the world that models legitimate and healthy corporate personhood (as opposed to the sociopathic nature of the modern business corporation) and in so doing to include those excluded by other corporate persons and provide limits on, or redirect, the ambitions and power of other corporate persons.