When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in 1774, he would not have thought that this piece would bring many of its readers to kill themselves. However, that was exactly what happened – but not because they found it dead boring, quite the contrary. Lovesick Werther, the hero of the novel – spoiler alert – shoots himself in the end. This, in combination with the popularity of the book, unfortunately led to quite a few copycat suicides among its deeply impressed readers. As the plot of Goethe’s novel was the source of inspiration for these deaths, this kind of connection between a published work and a wave of suicides has since been known as the ‘Werther effect’.
Thus, a piece of fiction can have considerable power. It can make the difference between life and death, between existence and non-existence of a person. Similar to literary fiction turning into reality (see the Werther example), legal fictions can also strongly influence our life. Some scholars take the view that legal fictions are mere tools or placeholders within the law that are necessary for it to work (that is, to fulfil its function). Nevertheless, fictions like the ‘legal person’ can shape the way we perceive and treat others – they can, for example, enhance their value in our view.
This March, legal personhood was granted to the Whanganui river in New Zealand. This was done to protect the river’s health and to preserve it for future generations. So, the government probably had positive effects of the personhood fiction on reality in mind. Moreover, the legal personality of the river should reflect the view of the local indigenous people that the river is a living entity in itself, is their ancestor, and is incapable of being owned as property. In our view, this is a fiction that has a – hopefully powerful – influence on how people treat the river. In the view of the indigenous people, the personality of the river might not be fictional at all, but real. Over time, while being obligated to treat the river better (like a person), we will possibly also perceive it as a gradually less fictional and more real person. This effect of a fiction would at least be more pleasant than the ‘Werther effect’.