Corporate personhood is the notion that corporations have at least some of the legal rights and responsibilities as people.

I'm curious to know what philosophers have said about corporate personhood, from a moral or philosophical perspective. Of course, it hinges on how one defines a person. Thomas I. White is one philosopher who tackled that question.

But, beyond anecdotal references, has the philosophical community waded into the debate over the morality of corporate personhood? I'm interested in learning the names of some notable philosophers who have tackled this topic, some philosophical schools of thought, or anything that might help me understand how this issue has been framed by the philosophical community.

Though I'm very opinionated on the matter, I'm interested in learning about views on both sides of the aisle.

Corporate personhood -- Wikipedia


There is actually a fair amount of material. My first three thoughts are : (1) that it is not profitable to consider whether corporations are metaphysical persons. There is no firm, clear, consensual answer to the question : 'What is a person ?' Referring, that is, to the sort of entity you and I are. Since we are unclear about this basic, metaphysical concept of a person, we are unlikely to make much progress on whether corporations are persons too.

(2) Corporations might be 'moral persons' in the sense that they can possess rights, privileges, duties.

(3) They might also be 'moral agents' in the sense that they are morally accountable, responsible, capable of causing blameworthy harm and subject to punishment.

Some references might be of better help (though I've listed Scruton and Finnis last they offer a good discussion which you needn't read first but would be well-advised to include in your early reading - Scruton is a philosopher who is also a qualified lawyer and Finnis is a qualified lawyer who is also a philosopher) :

1 Rita C. Manning, 'Corporate Responsibility and Corporate Personhood', Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Feb., 1984), pp. 77-84.

2 Martin Kusch, 'The Metaphysics and Politics of Corporate Personhood', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 79, Supplement 9: GROUP AGENCY AND COLLECTIVE INTENTIONALITY (2014), pp. 1587-1600

3 Daniel Lipton, Corporate Capacity for Crime and Politics : Defining Corporate Personhood at the Turn of the Twentieth Century', Virginia Law Review, Vol. 96, No. 8 (December 2010), pp. 1911-1964.

4 Kevin Gibson, 'Toward an Intermediate Position on Corporate Moral Personhood', Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 101, Supplement 1: Responsibility Beyond CSR (2011), pp. 71-81.

5 Michael J. Phillips, 'Corporate Moral Personhood and Three Conceptions of the Corporation', Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 435-459.

6 Peter French, 'The Corporation as a Moral Person', American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), 207-215.

7 Alisdair Maclntyre, 'Corporate Mondernity and Moral Judgement: Are they Mutually Exclusive?', Ethics and the Problems of the 21st Century, ed. K. E. Goodpaster and K. M. Sayre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

8 Roger Scruton and John Finnis, 'Corporate Persons', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, Vol. 63 (1989), pp. 239-274.

  • 3
    Nice list of references. I up voted it, but I'll wait to see if there are more answers before I mark it as the correct answer. – David Blomstrom Apr 1 '18 at 18:43
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    +1: great list of references. The only book I could think of was a popular polemic titled The Corporation. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 2 '18 at 4:12
  • I am interested in this question. My only addition to this inquiry is that 'corporate identity' applies mainly to legal requirements of formulating an entity / identity as a corporation. A corporate fiction has many similarities to all of the legal demands of any other citizen where it operates. Geoffrey Thomas covers how the abstractions of "personhood" are much harder to define than the abstractions the limitations of which create, and are confined to legal corporations. There are "illegal corporations" as well, which are basically a shell, posing as a legal entity. – Norman Edward Jul 1 '18 at 16:11

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