Decomposing Legal Personhood

Journal of Business Ethics 154 (4):967-974 (2019)

Jon Garthoff
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
The claim that corporations are not people is perhaps the most frequently voiced criticism of the United States Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. There is something obviously correct about this claim. While the nature and extent of obligations with respect to group agents like corporations and labor unions is far from clear, it is manifest in moral understanding and deeply embedded in legal practice that there is no general requirement to treat them like natural persons. Group agents may be denied rights to marry, vote, or run for public office. More generally the need to guard against discrimination, the core injustice in racism and sexism, has no direct application to the case of group agents. There is also something obviously incorrect about the claim that corporations are not people. The legal practice of treating some group agents as persons under law is ancient, found already in Roman law at the time of Justinian. In this essay I propose that reflection on this tension reveals that fundamental revision to the doctrine of legal personhood is needed. More specifically I propose that legal personhood be decomposed into at least two elements—standing and liability—and that legal systems reject the principle that an entity possesses one just in case it possesses the other. The import of this change ramifies broadly. Decomposing legal personhood not only enables a satisfactory account of the status of corporations and labor unions, who as such have liability but not standing, it also enables a satisfactory account of the status of those who as such have standing but not liability: severely mentally disabled persons, very young children, and non-human animals with phenomenal consciousness but lacking capacities to understand reasons and justifications.
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DOI 10.1007/s10551-018-3888-0
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References found in this work BETA

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