The Metaphysics of the Corporation: A Nexus of Contracts.

The Supreme Court issued a total of 5 writings in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission.  The metaphysical nugget at the heart of this politically charged case was whether corporations (and other legal entities without physical personhood) could claim certain constitutional rights or protections. The outcome, that a corporation could be considered a “person” and so have “free speech rights”, shocked many and was ridiculed somewhat. The core of the joke is obvious: a “corporation” isn’t even close to a “person.”

Corporations cannot be touched. They do not smile, they do not cry. They cannot get a driver’s license. They cannot go for a walk in the park. They are concepts. They exist as legal entities, as shorthand for a set of agreements. They are a nexus of contracts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nexus_of_contracts

And yet, corporations can own assets, owe debt, pay taxes, and even die (no one escapes those certainties, right Benny F?).

So the metaphysical puzzle is presented: how do we assess the nature of the corporation’s existence? I’m interested in this question for two reasons: First, I think it is extremely similar to many of the questions of the metaphysics of cyberspace (things that appear to have ontological force without physical presence). Second, corporations and business entities are enormously important in countless ways to the developed world (and, in a different way, important to the developing world). I find it striking the Internet and the Corporation are the two most dominant forces of the 21st century and have (potentially) similar metaphysics. Politicians and jurists need to take questions of metaphysics and ontology seriously as entities and locations of legal importance become less obviously physical. When policies or rulings are handed down without proper reasoning, the door is opened for the kinds of rulings in which a person is prison is not found to be “in custody.” http://verdict.justia.com/2012/03/21/why-interrogation-in-jail-may-not-count-as-custodial-the-supreme-court-makes-new-law-in-howes-v-fields Courts are forced to work backwards from statutes and precedent to the facts before them, and if their starting point is problematic, those problems can be magnified in the court’s efforts to force the square peg (the law without proper basis or explanation) into the round hole (the facts of the case at hand).

The deeper joke is that the word “corporation” comes from Latin word “corpus,” literally meaning “body.” In one sense, the corporation is the joining together of many bodies into one unified body, and yet it has no actual body of its own. Why couldn’t the late-night comedians and pundits glom onto that hilarity? Or at least meet this level of humor:

“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” -Ambrose Bierce

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