The History of People (Part II)

Last time we saw that there are two ways of speaking about people, legal and real (or metaphysical), each term with a convoluted history. And since we have the notion that a real person is the highest form of existence, we think this inherent value should be reflected in law, which confuses the issue a little more.

Two hot-button areas of American politics come into play here: first, should all real persons be considered legal persons; second, should legal (corporate) persons have the same rights as real persons.

(Warning: discussion on abortion follows. If you get too emotional about this sort of thing, or are just plain sick of it, please jump the next four paragraphs.)

Leading up to the Civil War, the general consensus among slaveholders was that while blacks may be real people, they should not be considered legal people because of their (supposedly) inferior intelligence.  This, thankfully, is a settled question. Today the argument over abortion has two aspects: is a fetus a real person (what exactly constitutes are real person?), and if it is a real person, do we necessarily have make it a legal person. It is curious to note that although the Supreme Court has decreed fetuses non-people, the law is not evenly applied: a fetus can still inherit property, or if a man knowingly murders a pregnant woman, he may be charged with double homicide.

People who call themselves pro-life will say that yes, a fetus is a real person, and yes, all real people should be considered legal persons. We can see some of the theological background of the word “person” here: a person is a being which by nature possesses intellect and will. A human fetus (as opposed to a rabbit fetus) has by nature (though yet not by practice) intellect and will. Behind this argument is the metaphysical conviction that there is a connection between what a thing is, and what it is worth.

People who call themselves pro-choice prefer not to argue about the nature of the fetus at all, but about women’s freedom. Still, they will generally argue that the fetus is probably not a real person and even if it is… then they change the subject. This is unfortunate because there is nothing inherently contradictory with the statement that “Not all real persons should be protected by law.” The metaphysical conviction behind the pro-choice attitude is that there is no connection between what a thing is and what it is worth. A thing is worth what it makes itself (hence the emphasis on choice and freedom).

Thankfully, I do not know anyone who is willing to fight a civil war over abortion, so America has reasonable hope of achieving a befuddled compromise on the issue, maybe even in our lifetimes.

(It is safe to look now.)

Should corporate people enjoy the same rights as real people? Since we are talking about two different meanings of the word “person” then we will probably have two different definitions of the rights we grant them. It is hard to think of a museum or trust fund as having rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” except by analogy: it can’t be dissolved for no reason, can govern itself by its own bylaws, etc. Corporate people are only “people” by analogy.

Most corporate persons are made up of real people who form the corporation to protect their interests. Most of us have no problem with corporations like the National Organization of Women or the National Rife Association giving political donations as an expression of “free speech”. We can be fairly certain that whoever donates money to these organisations is in general agreement with what they try to achieve.

But not every employee or customer of a company is in agreement with the political donations of the company, and changing jobs or brands is burdensome. Likewise, in some states, some laborers must join a union and mustpay dues, whether they agree with the politicians to whom those dues are given or not. In these cases it seems reasonable to put limits on the rights of some corporate people where they might infringe on the rights of real people. (It should be pointed out that even in the wake Citizens United v FEC, some such limits are still in place.)

What bothers me are wholesale attacks on the notion of corporate personhood as such: in the mouth of an Occupy Wall Street protester, it sounds like an excuse for robbery: take away a corporation’s private property rights, and it can be freely looted by whatever fascist government these clowns imagine themselves establishing.


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