Personhood for Profit

ARE CORPORATIONS “persons”? Legally, they are. They have the right to own property, to enter into contracts, to sue for defamation. Thanks to Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, they also have “free speech” rights. Voting is the only right corporations lack—and the tsunami of political money unleashed by that Supreme Court decision makes that limit irrelevant.

“Person” is an important word for Christianity. We speak of the three divine persons of the Trinity, and of the human person made in the image of God. What are we to make of “corporate personhood?” It’s tempting to invoke idolatry and the golden calf of Exodus. However, corporate persons are akin more to the “golem” of Jewish folklore—a human creation that fulfills our immediate goals, but brings about unforeseen destructive consequences.

Mitt Romney’s campaign gaffe “Corporations are people, my friend” points to the problem. He wasn’t arguing that corporations are literal people, but that they are made up of people working together. But what matters is the nature of these shared projects: The corporation insulates its anonymous stockholders from liability and works solely to maximize the value of their investments.

Indeed, the “corporate person” is the perfect homo economicus. A human owner of a firm, no matter how hard-eyed, will still have moral qualms and live in a community that judges his or her character. In contrast, the corporate person has no interior life. These abstract “persons” are served by trustees with the responsibility to do everything legally possible to maximize profits. They may regret abandoning devoted workers in order to seek cheap labor, but if they refuse, they fail in their fiduciary duty to the corporate person’s one-dimensional interests.

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