Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ethical/Moral, Corporate Personhood, and Same-Sex Muppet Nuptuals

C. Ewing asks,

"Is there a difference between moral and ethical? If so, what is it? Why do we make the distinction? Should we? Is it helpful?"
I've always found it odd when people say that something has "moral AND ethical ramifications" since I always use the two interchangeably. It's like saying that something has both empirical AND observable consequences. I think the reason why folks do believe there is a distinction, though, is important. Our moral notions are umbrella concepts. When we think about justifications for actions in ethically complex situations, we do think about the nature of the act itself as Kant would have us do, but also think about the consequences of the act as Mill or Bentham prescribe. In real-life moral deliberation, a plurality of ethical theories are in play and this makes it seem as if there is more than one thing going on, so we try to artificially create a non-existent distinction between the ethical and the moral.

Philo asks,
"Scalia wrote (in Citizens United, concurring) that corporations "cannot be denied the right to speak on the simplistic ground that it is not 'an individual American'." Romney said (at the Iowa State Fair) "corporations are people." Is either right? In what sense is a corporation is a person?"
The notion of corporate personhood is a major issue in business ethics and has fascinated me for years. What Romney said was that corporations were "people" which is beautifully ambiguous as it could point to either side of the debate. It could mean (a) that corporations are not things-in-themselves, but are the people who comprise them, or it could mean (b) that the corporation is a thing-in-itself, distinct from the humans that are a part of it, and that the thing should be considered a person.

The argument for (a) (which I think was what Romney was trying to say) is that all decisions made by the corporation are made by people. All actions by the corporation are carried out by humans. Profits from the corporation go to humans. Therefore, the corporation reduces to people.

The argument for (b) is that corporations are not just people, they have an internal structure that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Boards make decisions that might be compromises and therefore not identical to the decision of any human being on the board. As such, the corporation decided something that no person did. Corporations have policies and means of acting such that the action cannot be traced back to any human being's own volition. Corporate culture is quite real and people employed by the corporation will behave at work quite differently than they would do otherwise because of it. Indeed, you could remove lots of the people, but because of the corporate culture, replacing them with new human components will usually do little in changing the organization. As such, we cannot reduce the corporation to its people, but is its own thing.

I think (b) is correct, but then there is an additional step to determine whether that sort of thing we take the corporation to be ought to be considered a person. In may ways it is person-like -- it can deliberate, it can act, it has interests and projects, it has assets, and therefore I have argued in academic journals, it also has moral responsibilities. Should it have all of the legal rights of human beings? No. but it does need to be treated, it seems, as some sort of person-like entity.

Philo also asks,
"Should Bert and Ernie get married?"
This could be two different questions.

(1) Given their long-term stable relationship, is it a good idea for Bert and Ernie to tie the knot? This would give Bert half ownership of the drum set which might give rise to more tension in what has always been a fraught relationship, so to be honest it worries me. Yes, they deserve visitation and survivorship rights, but somehow the unlikely pair has been so stable with the current relationship, I'm not sure if messing with it is a good thing.

(2) Should Sesame Street portray a same-sex married couple? While I think it would be good to have a normalized picture of of gay married couple for kids, I think that it would unnecessarily intensify the right-wing attacks on public broadcasting. I think that the risk far outweighs the gain.