No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
~ John Donne
The concept of what corporations are has been expanding over many years. The courts have now accepted the idea that corporations have many of the same rights that individual persons have. One much debated right is the right to support candidates for elected office with donations to their political campaigns.
With this ability, corporate power has grown and expanded since a business can now support a candidate who favors legislation that makes their particular business more profitable or less regulated.
One element that we in the United States traditionally expect is that with individual rights come individual responsibilities. If we accept that view of personhood, what responsibilities do “corporate persons” have to the society they exist within?
The intent of this poem by John Donne cited above is clear to even the most casual reader. Human beings are interconnected and interdependent. We exist in a social web and while we have to care for ourselves, we have obligations to others around us.
Ethics are one expression of how we define those connections. In western cultures we accept the concept that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. We also generally accept that our freedom to swing our fist ends at someone else’s nose.
If we extend the rights of personhood to a corporation then shouldn’t we extend the obligations as well? Would we expect a corporation to think of how its decisions would affect not only the Corporation’s own interests (including profit or loss) but how its decision will impact the workers and community dependent on its operation?
Since a corporation relies on the community it operates in for work force training in the form of public education, for infrastructure in the form of the electric power grid; the transportation network; and physical security in the police force we have a reasonable expectation that the corporation will take the communities health and well being into account when making their decisions.
Those decisions about cutting work force or outsourcing jobs will include how those decisions will impact the local community should factor in what the loss to that community will mean. We should be able to expect that “corporate persons” might make a decision to take less profit to support the community job base in exactly the same way an individual might vote for higher property taxes on their own property to support the entire community’s services.
America is a nation founded on ideals. However well or poorly we live up to those ideals, they have always been our guiding principals. One is the concept of “no man left behind.”
As early as the French and Indian War that began in 1756, 20 years before the United States declared independence from the British, the American military has held the concept of “No Man Left Behind”.
Rogers' Rangers fought for the British against the French, using a combination of pioneer techniques and native-American tactics to outsmart enemy soldiers in wooded terrain where the traditional military struggled. They were also known for holding a certain standard, according to Paul Springer, an associate professor of comparative military studies at the Air Command and Staff College, which was to leave no fellow soldier behind.
This concept spread into our culture and is displayed in the lost hiker search and rescue events carried out almost every hiking season. A hiker is lost and not only the professional search teams turn out to look for the missing person, but many volunteers add their efforts until that missing person is found.
Once again the idea is that we are all connected and that while the searchers may not know that individual personally, they search with the same vigor as if it was the searcher’s own loved one.
Once again if we extend the concept of personhood to a corporate entity we expect that corporation to take the effects of their actions on any single individual with the same interests at they would if it was their own family.
One of the major reasons corporations don’t take this view of their relationship with the community is training. The people who become managers of corporations are trained to think narrowly about what are a corporation’s responsibilities. We decided that a corporation’s responsibilities are limited to the shareholders, and even more restrictively to increasing shareholder value.
This is not a natural law, it’s a decision that we as a society have accepted and the processes we have developed to satisfy that view are simply practices we created based on that limited viewpoint.
You may hear some mangers claim that “the courts have held that mangers fiduciary responsibilities are to the shareholders”, and that’s true as far as it goes. Those court cases were brought by large corporate investors who have a limited set of goals; that is, the increase of their stock value. And in that limited sense the courts agreed.
We have Good Samaritan laws that require motorist to stop at an accident and render aid. If all they can do is notify authorities so that emergency personnel are dispatched, many states require at least that effort.
Wether it be the example of of poem cited above by John Donne, the concept of “no man left behind”, or the Good Samaritan laws in most states, we are all interconnected in some way and “corporate persons” have to start behaving like the rest of us! They can’t continue to behave in selfish ways and not be held accountable for their actions. Sooner than later, people will wake up and demand that “corporate persons” start behaving honestly, ethically, and morally right so that the good of society takes precedence over the the profits to the shareholders.