Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Corporations as People: Is Jack and Suzy Welch's WSJ Op/Ed Malicious or Ignorant?

Sometimes you really wonder whether an article is satire or serious and just that bad. Jack and Suzy Welch have an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal trying to defend the position that corporations are people that is among the worst published arguments I have ever read. It is not only riddled with obvious fallacies, but it misses the entire point of the issue in an incredibly naive way.

Of course corporations are people. What else would they be? Buildings don't hire people. Buildings don't design cars that run on electricity or discover DNA-based drug therapies that target cancer cells in ways our parents could never imagine.

Buildings don't show up at a customer's factory and say, "We won't leave until we solve your inventory problem." Buildings don't encourage their employees to mentor inner-city kids in math and science. Buildings don't fund homeless shelters in Boston or health clinics in Rwanda. People do.

Corporations are people working together toward a shared goal, just as hospitals, schools, farms, restaurants, ballparks and museums are. Yes, the people who invest in, manage and work for corporations are there to make a profit. And yes, corporations may employ some bureaucrats, jerks, cheapskates and even nefarious criminals.

But most individuals working in corporations are regular people, people just like you and your friends and neighbors. People who want to make a living and want to make a difference.

They begin with a false dichotomy -- corporations could only be one of two things, buildings or people. The argument that corporations are people then follows two distinct paths. First, corporations do things buildings don't and that people do, therefore, since they could only be buildings or people, they must be people. But, of course, lots of things act more like people than buildings, and it doesn't make them all people. The flaw is in the false dichotomy. Corporations could be something else still, and that is exactly the position of those who say they are not people.

But it is the second argument in this passage that is the most problematic because it misses exactly the point of the philosophical debate. The Welches commit the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition is the error wherein you assert that because the parts have a property, the whole has the property as well. Just because every member of my critical thinking class is sitting in a chair, does not mean that the critical thinking class itself is sitting in a chair. Yes, the corporation is made up of people, but that does not mean it is a person.

But notice what the Welches do after committing the fallacy of composition, they then subtly alter the conclusion to make it into a completely different claim -- the one that philosophers actually argue about. The Welches go from "a corporation is a person" to "a corporation is people." These are VERY different claims and sit on the opposite side of the issue the Welches claim to have a conclusive argument about. No one argues that corporations do not contain people, of course they do. But the real question at issue is whether the corporation itself is a person distinct from the people within it. What the Supreme Court has asserted is not that the people in corporations have particular rights -- yes, they do -- but in addition to those people and their rights, the corporation itself is recognized as an artificial person with rights as well. It has rights, privileges, and legal protections like real, live people.

Some philosophers argue that corporations are groups and therefore all moral and legal obligations fall on the members of the group. We cannot talk about corporate responsibility without it really meaning the responsibility of those within the corporation. Only people are people and we cannot meaningfully speak of collective responsibility except as the sum of the individual responsibilities of those in the group. Other philosophers argue that groups are more than the sum of the parts and become things in and of themselves. Corporate boards, for example, can reach compromise conclusions that no one individual member thinks is the best option. Suppose there are three possible decisions, A, B, and C. Half the board thinks A is right and B is absolutely wrong, while the other half thinks that A is the worst idea ever and that B must be the answer. Since some decision must be made and unanimity would hide the conflict, something good for the stock price. they may go universally with option C even though no member of the board believes that C is best. Thus the board's decision is not identical to that of the members, yet it is a decision and causes consequences for which there is responsibility. Hence the collective mind differs from the sum of the individual minds. In this way, we look at the corporation as an artificial individual, as a sort of person distinct from the people within it. It is a hard philosophical question: are corporations persons (a group) or people (individuals unto themselves)? The Welches have put forward an argument for one position in the debate and then think that its is also the opposing position. It is as if they have no clue what the real issue is.

It seems that there are two possibilities here. Either (1) they do understand the philosophical question and have chosen to obfuscate it so as to confuse the population in order to gain influence for a view they support, or (2) they really don't understand the issue and just want to make those who claim that corporations are not persons seem like idiots through the use of a strawman argument. Neither is a desirable position, but it is an interesting question -- what are we seeing here malice or ignorance?