Corporations are ants, not people
One of the most debated legal fictions is the notion that corporations are treated as people. At least when it comes to contract law and similar areas, it makes sense to treat a corporation as a natural person. If we didn’t do that, most corporations would have significant difficulty going about their business. But clearly, there are limits to the notion of corporations are people. People have basic human rights but I don’t think that most people think that corporations have these rights as well. I know, the US Supreme Court seems to think that corporations have the right to free speech and that money is speech but with all due respect, I disagree.
Clearly, the notion that corporations are people in every and all respects is at odds with the intuition of most people. So why not ask a bunch of volunteers to tell us how much of a person they think corporations are? Sounds weird, but that’s what Nina Strohminger and Matthew Jordan did. They recruited 800 volunteers and showed them a series of corporations, animals, humans, and not-for-profit organisations.
Then they asked them a series of questions about these entities. For instance, they asked them to what extent an entity has moral rights, and to what extent it is able to wrong others or to be wronged. They also asked to what extent an entity is able to think, judge, and act reasonably as well as the extent to which an entity is able to experience feelings and emotions.
Based on the answers given by the volunteers, they created a scale from 0 to 100 with 0 being a rock and 100 being an adult human. The chart below shows how different corporations and entities place on that scale.
The two highest-scoring corporations are Johnson & Johnson and Goldman Sachs. J&J is about as human as a shark in the minds of people, while Goldman Sachs lies somewhere between a shark and a deceased man. Somehow, I find the placing of Goldman Sachs strangely fitting, but I don’t understand why J&J is considered to be similar to a shark while competitor Pfizer is considered to be about as human as a houseplant. Maybe the marketing team at J&J is just better at making their company look more relatable.
The bottom line, however, is that the average corporation is considered to be about as human as an ant. Which brings me to the question of how we should treat corporations in legal matters? If we face a couple of annoying ants invading our houses, we typically stomp on the first few and bring out the Raid Ant Killer to get rid of the rest. Given that some companies like Facebook have become about as intrusive and annoying as ants in my house, I wonder what we should do with them?
Ranking of corporations based on their perceived humanness
Source: Strohminger and Jordan (2022)