August 05, 2014
The Legal and Social Ontology of the Firm
Posted by Eric Orts

Thanks to Gordon Smith and my Wharton colleague David Zaring for inviting me as a guest blogger on The Conglomerate.  I am a new entrant in the blogosphere here, and I appreciate this invitation very much.

What follows is a written version of remarks that I presented at the Society for Business Ethics in Philadelphia on August 3 at a panel on “Corporate Personhood – For or Against or Whether It Even Matters?” organized by Kendy Hess of Holy Cross.  (Thanks, Kendy!)  The panel also included excellent presentations on the topic by two of my Wharton colleagues, Gwen Gordon and Amy Sepinwall, as well as Kendy.  A longer version will be presented in a conference in London in September, and a written version will also be included in a book that I'm co-editing with Craig Smith called The Moral Responsibility of Firms (forthcoming in Oxford University Press).  It will also inform chapter 1 of a book that is underway (and still forthcoming) currently called Rethinking the Firm: An Interdisciplinary Interpretation (also under contract with OUP). 

In these posts, I've been kindly invited to revisit some themes of my new book on Business Persons:  A Legal Theory of the Firm.  So I hope that I'll generate some interest in the book:  or perhaps make some of the ideas there more accessible in "blog-sized" pieces.  The following contribution is a first entry.


Let me be provocative first and say affirmatively: Corporations are legal persons and it matters. The thesis is qualified, however, by the fact that to say that corporations are persons is a conclusion that only then begins arguments about what it actually means in practice with respect to particular issues.  The fact that corporations are “persons” means only that we provide them – through law – with certain capacities and powers, and certain rights and obligations.  It remains to be decided what the nature and limits of these capacities and powers, and rights and obligations, may and will be.

Three main arguments support my claim.

1. Firms exist.  Some economists (and lawyers following them) have argued that firms do not really exist.  They are mere fictions, they say, and any serious epistemological analysis must look past the “legal fiction” of the firm – or the “corporation” in the form we are discussing here – to the actual human beings who are involved.  Although this methodological reduction may be useful for some kinds of analysis (economic modeling, etc.), it is wrong from a realistic legal and social perspective.  Firms exist because the law has evolved to say that they exist.  They are constructions of human relationships that are socially sanctioned and legally recognized.  They are “fictions” in the sense that they are created through the artificial mechanisms of law and government.  They are also “real” because people acting under law and in society believe in them and make them real.  Firms are therefore what I’ve called “real fictions”:  both nominalism and realism are right, but only when they are combined together into a nominalist realism.  See Business Persons, ch. 1.  Philosophers such as Margaret Gilbert, John Searle, and Philip Pettit support this view.  People acting in social groups form collective realities, which are reinforced and articulated by organizational law.  Business firms – including for-profit corporations – are in this sense social constructions.  Corporations are like money and nation-states.  Exxon-Mobil and Patagonia are as real as China and the United States.  They exist because we believe in them.  We act as if they exist – and so as social constructions they exist.  They have power and authority.

2. Firms are persons.  The method of legal recognition is to bestow “personality”:  The law recognizes an individual human being as a “person” who has “standing” to bring or defend a claim in court.  A person has rights: personal rights against mistreatment and rights against violations of one’s dignity and physical integrity.  The law matters here.  Consider the situation of a slave (historically not so very long ago in the United States) or an illegal immigrant (such as children from other countries crossing the southern border of the United States today).  The law does not recognize them fully as “persons” – or at least not to the same level of available rights and obligations as “citizens.”  Even children of citizens do not have a complete set of rights:  they cannot drive cars or enter contracts legally until reaching an age allowing legal capacity.  The law makes other distinctions:  “person” is a legally denominated concept.  It is extended (or not) for various reasons of philosophy and social policy.  Is a fetus a “person”?  What rights does a “terrorist” have?  Even: is a dog, such as my dog Butterbean, a legal person for certain purposes?  I cannot, for example, torture him for fun (assuming that I’m that kind of person, which I’m not).  In this sense, then, a dog too is a person:  he has some minimal rights recognized under law (though he'll need someone else to speak for him).

An analogous argument applies to firms.  They are “persons” because the law recognizes them as such and as having certain rights and obligations:  standing in court, holding of property, a party to contracts, an organizational principal, a target for tort liability, and a potential plaintiff to insist on its “rights,” whatever they may be.  The exact nature of these various rights of firms remains to be decided:  The controversial recent cases of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby extend claims of political and religious freedom to include corporations as persons.  Are these cases correctly decided?  The answer does not, I believe, turn on whether they are considered “persons” or not.  Firms are uncontroversially legal persons for many purposes.  The question is whether or not we should extend certain kind of rights to firms as “persons” derivatively – representing the people who act collectively through them.  Note that the answer can be qualified.  We may say: “Yes, corporations hold property and should have standing to object on constitutional grounds if a government attempts to expropriate the property without compensation.”  But we may also say: “No, corporations usually represent diverse groups of people regarding religion, so in these cases it is not correct to say that corporations should have religious rights" (contrary, of course, to the holding of Hobby Lobby).  I make this latter argument in a previous blog for The Conglomerate on Hobby Lobby here.

3. Legal personality matters, but it is not dispositive. Firms exist, firms have legal personality, and it matters.  The fact that a corporation is a person does not settle the argument for or against an assertion of rights or obligations.  This is a mistake in argumentation, in my view, that opinions on both sides of the divided Justices of the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby cases make.  In these kinds of cases, the Court should ask – as legislatures and citizens should as well – what is the purpose of a firm and of a corporation given the question that we're asking?  Arguably, as Justice Alito argues in Hobby Lobby, business firms are not just profit maximizers (as some students are taught in some business school classes).  They are moral creatures because the people who compose them are moral creatures (or, at least they have the potential to be moral -- nobody's perfect!)  But we then have to dig deeper and ask “who” is involved in the firm.  Why are we asking the question: “persons” for what purposes?  Perhaps firms should have political rights, but perhaps also they should be constrained in this respect for good reasons of political theory and modern democracy.  Perhaps some kinds of firms should have religious rights, but the scope of these potential rights should be constrained.  Rights of employees may be equal to those of owners and managers in this context.  There are other limits in principle that need to be drawn here too:  but my main point here is that doing so assumes that “legal personality” matters.  It is then a question of filling in the institutional portrait:  who is this person?  What kind of person?  And how does the nature of this person relate to the considerations in play on a specific issue?

4. Conclusion.  My argument is designed mostly to set up rather than to answer the hard questions, so I hope that my position will not be too controversial.  Here again are my main propositions.

a.  Firms exist. For our purposes here, corporations are a kind of firm.  (The difference between for-profit and profit corporations raises another set of issues.)

b.  Firms, including corporations, have legal personality.  The question is not whether firms are persons, but what the fact that they are persons means with respect to particular further questions regarding the rights or obligations that we should extend to them as persons.

c.  Legal personality matters, but is not dispositive.  To argue about whether firms are persons or not persons does not advance the ball very much.  The popular debate conflates the meanings of "persons" and "people."  Firms are persons; begin there.  And then engage the substantive policy issues as hand.  Move the discussion forward, while recognizing the truth of the “real fictions” of firms as legal persons.

Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Employees, Hobby Lobby, Legal Theory, Organizational Theory | Bookmark

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