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Monday, January 9, 2012

“Corporations Are Collective Entities, My Friend”

Here are two somewhat conflicting and competing statements, both true, that must be understood and harmonized for the self-serving economic and political arguments around corporations to make sense and for our responses to be meaningful [1].

1) The responsibility for actions can only be assigned to individuals (natural persons) or groups of identified individuals.

2) The human unit of action is the community; the actions of individuals form into collective phenomena arising, one way or another, from community opportunities, rewards, rules, values and beliefs.

Taken separately these statements offer little difficulty: a door is opened by a single hand, a lever is pulled, a pedal is pushed, a trigger is pulled; in every case actions ultimately are done by individuals (a situation somewhat complicated by our machines).  But, of course, there are “team sports” in which individual actions are coordinated into group behaviors, and then the responsibilities must be spread among all participants.  Perhaps one or more individual may be considered more responsible than certain others, but this doesn’t change the basic understanding.

Given our present habits, the first statement raises the question: Can the individual actually performing the action be absolved of responsibility for it; and a companion question, are there times when the individual should be absolved of responsibility for it? In other words, are there times when it is possible for the responsibility for an action to be assigned to some other entity than the actual performer, and are there times when such reassignment is also desirable?

These are not trivial or purely academic questions since their answers ultimately decide our relationship to each other and how we treat collective entities like governments, corporations, religious and other institutions.  When, where and why responsibility can be taken from the performing hand and reassigned makes all the difference.

Clearly there is great power in the ability to assign and reassign responsibility for actions; whole “industries” have grown around such (re)assignment, generally in one of two forms.  Responsibility has often been assigned to the various forms of community, either in whole or in part, or assigned to some supernatural cause.  Here we have obviously entered the domain of the second statement.

The second statement, taken in its most literal form, is also clearly true.  Human action is a product of the community in which it occurs.  Even those actions that we typically see as completely individual are actions assign to that status by the community; other communities can assign quite differently [2].  Therefore, actions are rewarded, punished and guided, this way and that, all based on community values and beliefs.

If individuals are acting out the prescriptions for behavior given by the community, then how can it be that they are responsible for the consequences?  Even those who violate more general community standards are almost always acting in coordination with some narrow part of the community standards that they have either gotten wrong or been led to believe to be correct, at least in the moment.  And if it is not identifiable community standards being followed, there are the beliefs associated with even a very personalized supernatural (even madness) that can be said to account for behavior.

However, if the first statement is to be adhered to, then while assignment of responsibility might be made to some entity other than the primary actor, that assignment would have to be to another natural person and not to a collective entity; it is in the attempt to assign responsibility for actions to collective entities that have put us in our quandary. Either natural persons are responsible for their actions or no entity is; only natural persons have the substantive existence that is required.

Since both statements are true, then they must be harmonized rather than taken to be competing, with one or the other them supreme.  The first step toward harmony has already been suggested: only natural persons can be assigned responsibility for an action; responsibility cannot be spread so thin that it fails to adhere to an identifiable person or persons.

The person speeding cannot claim, since the whole raft of cars within which he was driving was speeding, that he was not speeding.  The business executive that acts out the stipulations of a contract cannot assign responsibility to her boss, to company policy or the law.  It must be a matter of community understanding that responsibility for an act lies with the hand closest to the action.  Of course, this cannot be an iron law, but as a general expectation, attention would be focused in the right direction.

The problem with assigning “cause” to company policy or community standards is that no actionable entity is required to respond to grievances or harm.  Those complained to might offer that “someone should really change that policy,” or that “it doesn’t seem fair, but everyone does it.”  How different the situation would be if the process server had to be sufficiently informed of the correctness of her actions that she could support them on her own behalf; and that she might refuse to do actions that offended her, would of necessity refuse since she would be responsible for delivering a summands created falsely.

Impossible, you say, people cannot be held responsible for the actions required of them by the society; no one is responsible.  Everyone must do and live within the adapted form of their social situation.  If the crowd is speeding, then you must speed. If the group is stealing, then you must steal.  If the community is murdering, then you must murder. This is, certainly, how we have been living!

If all responsibility is ultimately to lie with the community, institution or corporation, then there will no standards within which human beings can live.  It is only when responsibility for actions adheres to individual human beings that behaviors organize into functional systems.  But then the question is begged: where are the standards to come from if not the community?

The standards must come from the community, but the responsibility for the outcome of actions must reside with natural persons.  In this way individuals are guided in their behavior, but are required to regularly consider the standards by which they live and the behaviors of others to which they contribute.  Ultimately, it is the community’s collected behavior that acts on the world; it is essential that all the contributors take personal responsibility for the community rather than being absolved of responsibility by consigning it to the community, institution or corporation.

It should be obvious that a collective entity cannot be assigned responsibility for actions since it has no device other than human agency by which to act: The Church acts only through the humans who, by their own actions, claim association with it; the government acts only through its humans; a corporation is only a collection of human beings who accept, by their own actions, to live within its standards. In every case it is the human that is responsible for the collective entity, and must not be allowed to claim that their actions are absolved by the collective’s habits and rules.

A collective is only a way to organize – synergize – the behaviors of individual human beings so the whole can accomplish more than the uncoordinated actions done separately.  It, therefore, must have organizational principles: rules that members must follow to become and remain a member.  Our present general point of view, that unaccountable forces move our collective action, leads to collectives that are truly unaccountable.  If natural persons are not accountable when they are guided by collective interests, and if collective interests are not accountable since accountability has no place to be assigned, then the whole human enterprise is a run-away train and will “adapt” itself right out of existence along with all that it grabs hold of on the way.

The attempt to conflate the functional relationships of natural persons with the functional relationships of collectives, especially corporations, is only a way of continuing to remove responsibility from natural persons who find it uncomfortable and inhibiting.  The great mass of us natural persons have supported that conflation, in our own immediate interest, by going along with avoiding responsibility for the actions of our own hand whenever we can.

We accept a level of ignorance in ourselves and others that is criminal.  We appeal to social standards (or the lack there of), the behaviors of others and economic necessity to reassign to the community responsibilities that are ours.  We narrow the scope of our accepted responsibilities to the barest minimum, often to the point of them disappearing altogether.  It is impossible from such a place to understand how increasingly outrageous, especially, collective corporate behavior is.

It is as foolish to claim that corporations are responsible for their crimes as it is to claim that they are in any way equivalent to natural persons; they are neither.  And we are as responsible for our part in the consequences of their collective action as their managers are for their part.  If we are to hold the CEOs accountable, we must also do so for ourselves. These ways of thinking and the demands so naturally created are a necessary beginning to setting our relationship to collective powers right.

[1] See Robert Hinkley’s, Time for a Real Debate: Are Corporations People?, to see how a more “inside baseball” account of the situation is affected by the thinking in this piece.

[2] Women in the sway of certain religious traditions (community standards!) are legally and socially charged, jailed and sometimes beaten or killed for adultery even when they are raped. Another example is the way, in our society, we assign individual success and collective failure to the wealthy and collective success and individual failure to the poor.

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