Do Corporations Have Minds?

One corporation, Apple (here in its New York manifestation)

A brief discussion of whether corporate mind exists, an idea which has become something of a political football.


There is sometimes in political discourse a discussion of whether corporations have minds or not, and whether, depending on the outcome of this question, they should be afforded protections and rights similar to those of individuals. The answer to that question has important and concrete consequences for public policy. The discussion is especially important now that “corporation” has become a vulgar catchword to represent everything that is despicable about human nature (avarice, ruthlessness, etc.), a word onto which people thoughtlessly relieve themselves of their resentments. The word conjures up scenes of sterile board meetings by the ultra-wealthy executives of Starbucks and Apple. In fact, a corporation is merely that which arises when in the economic arena two or more people decide to do together what they could not have done individually. There is a common notion that corporations are more powerful (and consequently more intent on abusing their power) now than ever before. Whereas there is an important discussion to be had about the undue influence of corporations’ money in politics and about crony capitalism, the idea that the mega-strength of corporations is some new phenomenon in history is completely false. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled almost all aspects of production and distribution (refining, railways, etc.) until it was broken up by the Supreme Court. Much earlier, the Dutch East India Company minted its own money and had the power to wage war on countries and to imprison and to execute individuals (powers of which it was more than happy to avail itself). No corporation today, thankfully, has these powers.

Another corporation, a "duka" in Kisubi, Uganda (with yours truly engaging in a transaction)

The easiest answer is to dismiss as nonsensical the notion that corporations have minds – only human beings, and possibly some animals – have minds as commonly understood, and a corporation is an abstraction that cannot possibly have a mind. Taken literally, of course, this is quite true, but as usual, a philosophical perspective will allow us to cut across mere literal meanings.

In a New York Times article by Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor of philosophy and cognitive science, published on June 15 of this year and entitled Do Corporations Have Minds? (linked to here), the writer begins with the example of a lawsuit against a corporation (YouTube and its parent company Google) alleging that YouTube had “knowingly” and with “brazen disregard” of the law infringed on the plaintiff’s copyright. That is to say, in the lawsuit, mental states and intentions were attributed to a corporation. Knobe describes it as “deeply worrisome” that our understanding of corporations may be shaped in ways similar to those shaping our understanding of the minds of individual human beings, and thinks it should “give us pause”. He and a few colleagues perform an experiment in which it is revealed that the same parts of the subjects’ brains is activated when thinking both of individuals as agents and of corporations as agents. (I think the methodology of the experiment could be questioned. For example, a counter-case of an agent that is neither a person nor a corporation being placed in the same grammatical relationship with the action appears to be missing from the experiment; it might have shown that the grammatical agent-relationship stimulates the same part of the brain even outside of the person-corporation dichotomy. But this is another matter.) But I do not find this worrisome at all, nor do I think there is need for any pause-giving, and that for two reasons, which I want to briefly examine: First, group mind is as ancient as individual mind, and second, the practical consequences of corporations having or not having minds should not be underestimated.

Employees of the Dutch East India Company execute a few Englishmen in Ambon, Indonesia, because they wanted their nutmeg.

As for the first point, most knowledge is group knowledge. If we define mind as a collection of intentions and mental states – a perhaps primitive but for the present context sufficient definition – then we find that our emphasis on mind as something purely individual is somewhat misplaced. The development of the notion of an individual will – or intention – as we understand it today occurred to a great extent as a Christian response to the problem of theodicy, how evil can be explained in a world controlled by an omnipotent and just god. The classic response of the Christians, especially Augustine, was, and still is, that individual free choice is responsible for evil, regardless of divine agency, but there is no reason to assume that this is correct (and many reasons to assume that it is wrong, as I have written extensively elsewhere). The Greek (pagan) word for will, boulesis, entails no freedom and displays through its etymology the flavor of “counsel” and “advice”, a plan of action mapped out in concourse with others.

One might say that it would be somewhat tendentious to use Greek etymology as an argument in the discussion of corporate mind, but in fact understanding our own words – which is already half of the philosopher’s task – and comparing them to others, and thereby escaping from the mental confines that any one language constitutes, can disabuse us of many received notions, in this case the idea of will as something individually unique. When a large body of group knowledge or will is formed, it is possible, and in fact overwhelmingly likely, that the full body of knowledge or will does not correspond to the knowledge of any one individual member, but the new body is no less real. This is seen in nature as well, of course. The schooling of fish or the V-formation of migratory birds create a new entity and will that cannot be formed by any individual member of the species. Corporate spirit is thus something independently real, both in the animal kingdom and among humans.

As for the second point, that of practical consequences, the accordance of juridical personhood to corporations is an important bulwark against oppressive governments (a subject I touched upon in the post of May 7, 2015, Freedom of Association and Gay Rights). A corporation that does not have the same right as a natural person, that is, that is not legally elevated to the same status as a person, can be shut down by the government if it engages in speech critical of the powers that be. The French corporation that made fun of Charles de Gaulle’s death – a precursor of the Charlie Hebdo magazine – no longer exists, because the government took offense and did to the corporation what it could not legally have done to a person, namely destroy it for an act of speech or writing: newspapers, books, other printed media, broadcasts, theater, and much else, are generally produced by corporations. Other types of corporations can build and disseminate bodies of knowledge that an individual could not attain, knowledge that therefore enriches us and should be protected. And when a corporation commits a crime, we can punish it like we punish natural persons. If a person can be executed for a serious breach of criminal law, a corporation should be able to be liquidated.