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 think of a corporation as a natural person. If we didn’t, most corporations would face significant difficulties in doing business. But clearly there are limits to corporations being human. People have basic human rights, but I don’t think most people think that corporations have those rights either. I know the US Supreme Court seems to think that corporations have the right to freedom of speech and that money is speech but with all due respect I disagree.
Clearly, the notion that corporations are people in every way is counterintuitive to most people. So why not ask a bunch of volunteers to tell us how human they think corporations are? Sounds weird, but here’s the thing Nina Strominger and Matthew Jordan did They recruited 800 volunteers and showed them a range of corporations, animals, people and non-profits.
They then asked them a series of questions about these entities. For example, they asked them to what extent the subject has moral rights and to what extent he can hurt others or be hurt. They also asked the extent to which the subject was able to think, judge, and act rationally, and to what extent the subject was able to experience feelings and emotions.
Based on the responses given by the volunteers, they created a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is a rock and 100 is a grown man. The chart below shows how different corporations and organizations rank on this scale.
The two highest scoring corporations are Johnson & Johnson and Goldman Sachs. J&J is as human as a shark in people’s minds, while Goldman Sachs is somewhere between a shark and a dead man. For some reason, I find the Goldman Sachs placement oddly fitting, but I don’t understand why J&J is considered shark-like, while competitor Pfizer is considered as human as a houseplant. Maybe J&J’s marketing team is just better at making their company more relatable.
The bottom line, however, is that the average corporation is considered to be about as human as an ant. This brings me to the question of how should we treat corporations in legal matters? When we encounter a couple of pesky ants taking over our homes, we usually trample the first few and pull out the Raid Ant Killer to get rid of the rest. Given that some companies like Facebook have become as intrusive and annoying as ants in my house, I wonder what we should do about them?
Ranking corporations based on their judgment of humanity
Source: Strominger and Jordan (2022)