We intuitively know who is a person; we don’t need a dictionary definition for it –we know it when we see it. Certainly, Goldman Sachs is not the first thing that comes to mind. But here is a question that on the face of it sounds ridiculous: who, or more appropriately what, is not a person. The obvious answer is: anything that is not a person. But this is circular logic. In order to break the cycle we need to define what we mean by “a person”, and then classify everything else as a non-person. Now, before I tell you why I am wasting your time on such abstruse philosophical issues, let’s look at the definition of “a person”.

Charles Taylor: (The Concept of a Person”, Philosophical Papers. Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 97-114.):

“person (plural: persons or people; from Latin: persona, meaning “mask”) is a human being, or an entity that has certain capacities or attributes strongly associated with being human (collectively called personhood), for example in a particular moral or legal context. Such capacities or attributes can include agency, self-awareness, a notion of the past and future, and the possession of rights and duties, among others”. An entity possessing moral duties? We now know that moral values, altruism, cooperation, all those good things are hard-wired in human beings’ brain. Where do they reside in an inaminate entity? In the corporate server? The CEO?

But the story doesn’t end here. As so often happens, when scholars, politicians, lawyers, theologians and other assorted self-appointed sages argue an issue among themselves, the conversation becomes progressively abstruse and divorced from the physical reality we live in. The outcome: reams of serious manuscripts on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (the answer, for whatever it’s worth, is 3). Or think of the philosophers struggling to define what is “life”. The vitalist school posited something called “life force”; nobody saw it or found evidence for it; nevertheless they did develop a whole school of thought based on philosophical argumentations devoid of any relationship to the physical world.

So, if you look up the definitions of “person” in a dictionary, you are likely to find one like this one: “Law: A human or organization with legal rights and duties.” Exxon Mobile a person? How did we get from Charles Taylor’s philosophically-based and straightforward definition to the one that endows corporations, civic organizations, churches, the food store around the corner, with “personhood”? Where did the “moral duties” requirement disappear? What happened here? The process of getting to this definition is not unlike the process of developing any other outworldly-sounding theories: legal theorists talking to each other in universities, think tanks, and scholarly journals. Such conversations tend to become progressively self-referential and disconnected from reality. And nobody is there to shout: wait, this is what is called reductio ad absurdum – pushing the philosophical argument to absurdity.

Conservative jurists were quick to embrace the concept of corporate personhood. The consequences, not entirely unintended, are too well-known. Within a few years of gaining control of the Supreme Court by conservative-leaning justices, the floodgates of corporate money were raised, unprecedented sums washed over our political system, and our meritocratic system turned into a third-world crony-capitalism.

Was this the intent? I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I can’t escape a nagging suspicion that this is exactly what was intended. Since the classical Athenian and Roman states, the democratically sounding laws were perverted or actually crafted to protect the Patrician class interests. Unfortunately, I can’t see an obvious way to reverse this aberration of our democracy. Will the Occupy movement focus on this issue as the root cause of the evils of “the system”?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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