Corporations and Corporate Personhood; Should they be morally responsible? (Part 2)

There is this wide sentiment that corporations are really bad for the society in general because of their contribution to environmental woes for example, or for creating inequalities in wealth distributions in a very capitalistic era. The scale of corporate activity and its influence on everyday life have made people realise how much of a grip these institutions, which are legal fictions,  have on our daily life. This is quite a frightening realisation and people have been vouching for corporations to have moral responsibility and restrictions because after all they have ‘person rights.’

However, attributing them moral responsibility can sometimes not be the best move, however unpopular this assertion might be. In this second blog post about the philosophical dimension of corporate personhood, I analyse the other side of the moral personhood, that is, arguments against corporate moral personhood.

Proponents of this theory argue that the corporation itself cannot have blameworthy intentions but rather, it is the individuals who run it who possess those. Hence, only the individuals can be held morally responsible for their actions.

“Moral personhood requires a certain level of autonomy: moral responsibility for an act can be attributed only to the person who originated the act in his own body, a body over which he or she has direct autonomous control.  Since corporate action never originates in a body belonging to the corporation, but in the bodies of human beings who directly control their own actions, corporations do not originate acts in the manner required for moral responsibility to apply.”[1]

The rationale here being that, since corporate action can never happen without human beings triggering them, the corporations cannot be moral. Here the corporate form wants to be treated as a person under the law but does not want the ‘moral’ responsibility that comes with it as it does not have a ‘body’ its own from which actions can originate. It ironically embraces its fictional side here. Other philosophers have argued that corporations cannot possess the intentionality needed for them to be morally responsible as they do not have minds to think on their own. Whilst others argue that even if we are able to establish intentionality, it would simply not suffice as corporations cannot feel emotions. [2] Whilst human beings can feel regret or remorse for making immoral choices, corporations cannot feel the same, they cannot empathise and this solely invalidates the moral personhood theory.

Secondly, some philosophers fear that granting corporations moral personhood would also mean granting them moral rights. This would mean that corporations would expect to be treated like a person and be respected as such and this is a very uncomfortable notion for society.[3] After all, we would be treating a ‘fiction’ with respect that is normally reserved for human beings. To explain this Ripken invokes Kant and his theory of means and ends;

“According to Kant, all human beings are ends in themselves and should always be treated as such, never as means to another end. In contrast, corporations are human creations that are formed as means to achieve the ends of those human beings who choose to participate in the corporate enterprise. If corporations have the same moral standing as natural persons, then corporations are entitled to the same moral rights, in particular, the right to be treated as an end in itself.”[4]

If they are treated as ends themselves, it would just open the floodgates with both Ladd and Ripken arguing that for example, the closing down of the corporation would be considered to be ‘murder’ as it means it would metaphorically mean that the corporate person is dying. So to avoid these strange assumptions from concretising, the corporations should only just be treated as ‘machines’ that were put in place to advance human ends and should therefore not be given moral personhood and have moral rights and responsibilities. [5]


[1] Susanna Ripken,”Corporations are people too: a multi-dimensional approach to the corporate personhood puzzle.” (2009) Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 15 : 97.

[2] Rita C. Manning ‘Corporate Responsibility and Corporate Personhood’, (1984) 3 J. Bus. ETHICS 77, 80

[3] John Ladd, Morality and the Ideal of Rationality in Formal Organizations, (1970) 54

MOIST 488, 500

[4] Ripken at 123

[5] Ibid


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