Social Question

Zuma's avatar

If corporations are bound to a morality different from the rest of us, should they be granted the same political and civil rights as natural persons?

Asked by Zuma (5886 points ) September 24th, 2009

Corporations are artificial persons under the law. They are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value, which often places them at odds with consumers (whom they injure and cheat), with the environment (which they despoil and pollute), and with their workers (whom they seek to pay as little as possible).

There is now a case before the Supreme Court which is considering granting them the same free speech rights to corporations as now enjoyed by natural human beings. If the Court rules in their favor, they will be able to purchase virtually unlimited amounts of speech in finite media markets, effectively crowding out natural citizens. They will be able to serve their own narrow profit-oriented concerns, and not the interests of their consumers, workers or citizens of the country in which they do business.

Given the immortality of corporations and the laws of compound interest, over time the playing field would become increasingly tilted so heavily in favor of corporations that natural citizens would be crowded out of the political process and lose the rights they now enjoy.

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27 Answers

RedPowerLady's avatar

Should they (corporations) be granted the same political and civil rights as natural persons?

Heck No!
If that happens I say it’s time to move to a country with national healthcare and just get outta dodge.

lercio's avatar

There’s a strong argument for seeing corporations as psychopaths. So does this mean we can lock them up and drug them if they show the symptoms.

drdoombot's avatar

Great Question!

The answer is **NO**. If anything, the laws concerning corporations should be amended to take away their power. What you mentioned up there, about being “legally obligated to maximize shareholder value,” just doesn’t sit well with me. There should be caveat added to that, so the whole thing would read:

Corporations are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value, except for situations when doing so causes damages, even indirectly, to consumers, the environment and employees.

Alas, this is just wishful thinking.

marinelife's avatar

No way should corporations be given any of the rights of individuals.

aprilsimnel's avatar

NO! That’s outrageous!

PerryDolia's avatar

Corporations are already legally individuals. They have been for over 150 years, since just after the Civil War.

This was when they began their rise to the level of power they have now.

Watch the documentary video, The Corporation

JLeslie's avatar

This question is unbelievable. It will be interesting to see the ruling by the court.

lloydbird's avatar

Corporations are not ”..bound to a morality different to the rest of us..” because they are essentially a collection/coalescense of ‘individuals’ acting out of self interest, in this ‘competition’ oriented world that we inhabit. It is the same “morality”- if I don’t beat you to that which I need or require, then I don’t get it.
So therefore, the behaviour of corporations is perfectly natural. A reflection of ‘competitive’ nature. If my corporation doesn’t get what it needs, then some other corporation will!
Whether they should be granted the same rights a ‘one’ individual is another matter, because they are not that. They are a group. So how can they be afforded the same ‘individual’ rights?

Zaku's avatar

Corporations already amass so much power that they shouldn’t be considered for abolition, not more rights.

kevbo's avatar

My understanding is that US corporations originally were founded by charter, which invariably required them to account for the community’s interests (in addition to the pursuit of profit) lest their charter be revoked. As has been mentioned, they were granted personhood some time ago (1800s?) via a judicial decision. Since then (as has been mention above and is the thesis of “The Corporation”) they have evolved as persons to mimic the DSM-IV criteria for psychopathy/sociopathy. For whatever reason, I was under the impression that the court case mentioned in the question details was to potentially reverse personhood status for corporations, but I am talking out of my rear on all accounts in this response so take it FWIW.

YARNLADY's avatar

Wait a minute, how many ‘natural’ people do you know who live by the “morals” you say corporations are violating? Most people admit that their own self-interest comes before any law or moral when they are making behavioral choices.

benjaminlevi's avatar

I don’t think its a question of morals (and corporations are amoral, not immoral) its a question of what we will let them get away with. Hopefully this court case will make people realize they don’t necessarily have to give corporations rights, we just enable them with our apathy.

Zuma's avatar

First, a corporation that does not maximize shareholder value is open to shareholder lawsuits. Corporations are not concerned with the welfare of the poor, the cleanliness of the environment, the education of our children, the health of our citizenry. They are concerned with one thing, and one thing only, making a profit. And they use their political clout to exempt themselves from taxes and environmental rules; they use their marketing power to engineer our tastes and preferences; and they seek to turn a profit on every aspect of human misery, from our ill health, to our fear of crime, even selling us antidepressants to numb us to our sense of spiritual malaise and emptiness.

Second, corporations are legal fictions in the same way partnerships and contracts are fictions. They have been granted the status of personhood for purposes of establishing criminal liability, and so that they have legal standing before the law generally. But they have never enjoyed full, unfettered human and political rights, for the obvious reason that they dwarf any natural human being.

Third, corporations do live by a different morality than the rest of us, because they are not concerned with nurturing and developing people to realize their full potential or to be all that they can be. They are concerned with one thing and one thing only: whether the person is contributing to the bottom line; whether he is a reliable and docile corporate tool. Anyone who is not useful to that enterprise is let go, creating an ethos of competition in order to make sure that when the company has to downsize in order shore up profits, that the person who is let go is not you. This competition encourages us to treat one another instrumentally; as means to an end; as people to be manipulated; and, if necessary, betrayed in order to serve one’s own ambitions to move up in the corporate ladder of wealth, power and success.

This breeds a kind of me-firstism that undermines human empathy and compassion. None of you would even be here without the open-handed and generous nurturing of your mothers. Nobody looked at you and asked “How are you going to be a useful tool for my self interest?” No, your parents sacrificed, just as you sacrifice your own time and money on your children.

@kevbo has it right, corporations are psychopathic, insofar as they care for no one and nothing but themselves, and so have no conscience.

@lloydbird You are only correct if selfishness counts as “morality.” Sad to say, there are spiritually sick people who are only out for themselves and pride themselves on their cynicism and “realism.” It is, unfortunately, a psychic disconnect from the moral claims of your fellow man. It is the morality of the Romans versus the Christians; or the morality of Boss Hogg versus the morality of Martin Luther King, etc.

@benjaminlevi How can you prevent a corporation from getting with everything it wants if money is considered free speech and, at any given time, they can write a check that is 10,000 times larger than any check you can write. When was the last time the government won an anti-trust lawsuit?

@drdoombot “Corporations are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value, except for situations when doing so causes damages, even indirectly, to consumers, the environment and employees.”

If most judges are elected and corporations can funnel money to judges that favor their interests—or they can simply buy the changes in the law they need, who and how will it be decided when your “exception” kicks in?

lloydbird's avatar

@Zuma “Corporations are not concerned with the welfare of the poor, the cleanliness of the environment, the education of our children,the health of our citizenry.”

I’m not sure that it is fair or accurate to accuse corporations of being “not concerned” about all the above. Rather, I suspect that they have to put their concerns to one side because of the operating conditions in which the find themselves in. Namely – Competition based. If a corporation was to drastically reduce their polluting effects on the environment, for instance, at a financial cost (Which would have to be passed on to their customers) then they leave themselves open to being undercut by their competitors and losing business as a result. So it is the conditions that are the cause. Different conditions would probably facilitate different behaviour.

”..corporations do live by a different morality than the rest of us,..”

Most of “us” probably work for corporations (directly or indirectly), so how can they ”..live by a different morality” to “us”? Unless we each of us employ one type of morality for work and another for other times. Perhaps we do. But only out of necessity and not out of a lack of caring.

Again, I think it is very important to keep in mind that “corporations” are no more than a collection of allied individuals with a common aim and not some lumbering,single-minded entity. To accuse a corporation of being “psychopathic” is to ascribe the same condition to all of its component, individual parts.

The core problem with corporations, businesses, governments, countries and society in general is their current orientation towards competitive (Win-Lose) behaviour. Until there is a change of orientation away from competition towards a more co-operative (Win-Win) society, then our problems will just continue to get worse.
And therein lies some hope.

wundayatta's avatar

I don’t know the history of corporations becoming individuals in the eyes of the law. I don’t know why this happened. I’m sure there must be some justification. But I have no idea how it relates to the US Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

From this position of ignorance, I think corporations should not be the equivalent of individuals. It is much harder to hold a corporation responsible for its behavior than it is to hold a person responsible for their behavior. Corporations don’t die like people do. Corporations make decisions in a group, whereas individuals can’t do that. The implications of that fact are manifold.

If the Supreme Court does decide that corporations are individuals, I wonder if Congress will be able to take any action that treats corporations differently than people. Wouldn’t that be an unprotected form of discrimination? In any case, I hope Congress and the President will take action to strip that status from corporations should the Supreme Court reinterpret the law of the land.

Zuma's avatar

This by the way, is the case referred to above now before the US Supreme Court.

@lloydbird I think that corporations are much more than the sum of allied individuals. Corporations are not mutual aid societies; they are impersonal fictions that most assuredly have lives of their own. After all, they live on independently of any individual worker, investor or customer. They have bureaucratic imperatives to “grow or die”; they are required to live up to Wall Street investor expectations of a certain level of profitability—a level that tends to preclude them from such charitable concerns as cleaning up their own pollution; and, increasingly, they disinvest in America in order to enhance their bottom lines. Corporations band together in trade associations to lobby for less restrictive pollution standards, or less zealous enforcement, or they contribute to broader campaigns and causes to defeat the very idea of government regulation.

Corporations never do the socially responsible thing—like install air bags and seat belts in cars, or invest in renewable energy, or start apprentice programs that would be helpful to draw American youth into the world of work. They fight these things tooth and nail. They have almost completely co-opted Congress, which is now awash in special interest money. So, corporations, far from being the passive recipients of the status quo, in fact go to great lengths to shape it for their benefit.

One of the biggest complaints in American life is that people hate their work. They don’t like having to deny people’s medical claims, or charging people 30% interest on their credit cards, or selling people sub-prime loans or cell phone contracts that they know have predatory gimmicks in them, or evicting them from their homes when they eventually fall victim to these “trick and trap” contracts. Or giving people the run around on their medical insurance claims.

In my view, the core problem with corporations is that they have too much power—especially those now regarded as “too big to fail.” Unlike natural individuals they have not only the advantage of immortality, but limited liability. You can not imprison or put a corporation to death, even though they are criminally culpable for things like the disaster at Bhopal.

benjaminlevi's avatar

@Zuma “Corporations never do the socially responsible thing”
They do, when we the consumers convince them that doing so would be more profitable. If we all shop for the triple bottom line they will do anything to keep our business.

Zuma's avatar

@benjaminlevi We are still basically in agreement. Corporations will do the responsible thing, when pigs fly.

benjaminlevi's avatar

@Zuma Corporations will do the responsible thing, when pigs fly when we care enough to make them.

Zuma's avatar

@benjaminlevi I’m afraid that caring doesn’t make much happen. Money does.

The corporations have bought and paid for Congress, and they have bought and paid for all the media time that would be necessary to run the people necessary to reform Congress. Look around. I don’t want to alarm you, but ordinary citizens have been pretty much disenfranchised.

Even our Great Black Hope has sold us out on health insurance reform, and credit card reform, mortgage modification programs, and most of the so-called reform measures enacted recently. As one legislator said recently, “The banks (still) own the place.”

benjaminlevi's avatar

@Zuma ”’I’m afraid that caring doesn’t make much happen. Money does.”

Its not about caring, its about everyone telling those that produce goods that they will buy only what meets certain environmental or ethical standards. It would be so easy to change their business models if everyone decided as a whole what to do, but that won’t ever happen because nobody actually gives a shit about pollution or children in sweatshops (we just pretend to)

Zuma's avatar

@benjaminlevi ” its about everyone telling those that produce goods that they will buy only what meets certain environmental or ethical standards”

And what standards might those be? Do you have an organization that formulates these standards and has laboratories that check to see if companies meet them? And do you have a means of publicizing which ones are acceptable and which should be boycotted?

Look at the present day food industry to bring us cheap, mass-produced prepared foods that have been engineered to act on our brains like crack, and very unhealthful in many other ways. Here the facts are knowable but unknown. Where is the public outrage? What legislator would dare forego campaign contributions from Big Food or risk a well-funded challenger?

Look what happened to Oprah when she spoke out against the beef industry. You make it sound so simple. All we have to do is “just care.” If the beef industry can silence someone like Oprah, what chance do ordinary people like you or I have?

benjaminlevi's avatar

@Zuma Ok, then whats your plan?

Zuma's avatar

@benjaminlevi I wish I could tell you. As soon as I can figure out how to set up a blog where a number of us can contribute equally to it, a bunch of us Flutherites are going to try to explore this question in depth. Currently, we are thinking in terms of reviving the Religious Left as a counter-force to the Religious Right. The reason we are going this route is explained more fully in Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God.

The explorations we propose are things like developing a kind of “spirituality for atheists” so that we can draw liberal believers and non-believers into organizations dedicated to a morality based on compassion, non-violence, self-determination, human dignity and human rights—as opposed to the coercive call to obedience implicit in the violent God traditions on the right.

We are looking at religion and spirituality as a vehicle for organizing our own “values voters,” only we seek to promote more constructive and inclusive values. There is a great hunger among atheists for some sort of fellowship, and there is certainly a need for organizing people outside of politics on the Left.

lloydbird's avatar

@Zuma Just wondering, is there a term that someone can call themselves if they are not religious but do have a belief and sense of some kind of God?

Zuma's avatar

Spiritual? That also seems to cover atheists who feel a moral connection to their fellow man.

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