Corporate persons and corporate corruption

There can be only one proper response to the fanatical imposition of error and immorality to which our institutions are being increasingly given over.

(Image: Sean Pollock/Unsplash.com)

A neglected insight of Scholastic political philosophy and traditional conservatism is that institutions can have a personal nature.  The Church, a government, a business firm, a university, a club, and similar social formations are like this.  They can be said to make decisions, to act and to be morally and legally responsible for the consequences of those actions, and to have rights and duties.  They can be praised or blamed, loved or hated, and loyally supported or betrayed.  They can be born, grow, flourish, decline, and die.  They can exhibit distinctive virtues, vices, and other character traits.  They can become corrupted or be reformed.  Since they have such personal attributes (or something analogous to them, anyway) the tradition refers to them as moral persons or corporate persons.

The importance of the notion of the corporate person was central to the thought of Roger Scruton.  As he notes in an important essay on the topic, a corporate person can survive death, as in the case of a throne that is vacant for an extended period of time, so that the government of which its occupant was the head is dormant until someone finally sits upon it again.  He also notes that while corporate persons cannot be said to have anything like sensory experiences, they can be said to have beliefs, intentions, and the like.

Though Scruton does not draw the connection, this seems to make corporate persons analogous to souls, which survive the death of the body and retain their rational powers after death despite losing the exercise of their sensory powers.  The flesh and blood human beings who make up the membership and leadership of a corporate person would, accordingly, be analogous to its body.

Scruton also notes that some corporate persons can be utterly malign, such as the Nazi and Communist parties.  By my analogy, such corporate persons may be likened to damned and impenitent souls, or perhaps to demons who have gotten possession of the “bodies” comprised of their leaders and members.  (That’s a metaphor.  I am not saying that the latter are all literally demon-possessed.)

A corporate person could instead be infallible, as Catholics claim the Church is.  That doesn’t mean that the individual members cannot err, including the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra.  It means that the “mind of the Church” as a corporate person cannot fall into error, and the reason a pope cannot err when speaking ex cathedra is that in such an act he is giving definitive expression to the mind of the Church.

Then there can be corporate persons that fluctuate between evil and good.  The Roman Empire was such a corporate person.  As persecutor of the Church, it was evil.  The post-Constantinian empire, and then the Holy Roman Empire that revived it, was that same corporate person converted to Christianity and baptized.  The periods in which the throne was empty amounted to the corporate person becoming dormant, like a disembodied soul.  According to the medieval legend of the Last Roman Emperor, the same corporate person will be revived anew to defend the Church.  And the empire of Antichrist might be interpreted as that same corporate person becoming apostate in the last days and returning to its role as persecutor.

Most corporate persons are, of course, nowhere near as colorful as these examples.  They would be the governments, firms, clubs, and the like with which we deal in everyday life.  And that brings us to what we usually think of today when we hear the word “corporate” – corporations in the business sense.  Corporations of this kind are not intrinsically evil, but neither are they intrinsically benign.  Like human persons, they can become corrupted.  In particular, like human persons, they can become corrupted by the tenor of the society that surrounds them.  And they can become corrupted en masse when the society that surrounds them crosses a certain threshold of decadence.  The difference is that they wield enormous power, and thus can do much greater evil than an individual corrupt person can – for example, by massively accelerating, through their influence, the general social decadence that has infected them.

Part of the corruption that can occur is the kind you would expect.  Business corporations exist in order to make money, and like human persons, they can be tempted to do so in immoral ways.  For example, corporate persons, like persons in the ordinary sense, have patriotic duties and duties of solidarity toward the fellow members of the community within which they operate.  And they violate these duties when they let considerations of profit override their obligations to their country and its citizens (by needlessly offshoring jobs, working to relax immigration laws so as to secure cheap labor, etc.).  Modern American conservatives have become more sensitive to this problem in recent years, though market fundamentalism still blinds too many of them to it.

At the same time, it is a serious error to think that profit is all that drives corporations, any more than it is all that drives human persons.  Hence, it is an error to think that greed is the only sort of corruption to which they are prone.  This is something else that modern American conservatives are coming to learn, the hard way.  Corporations could make enormous amounts of money catering to the distinctive tastes and interests of traditional religious believers and others with conservative attitudes.  But they show little interest in doing so.  The reason is that they now largely share the same liberal and secular worldview that prevails in academia, entertainment, and the Democratic Party, and are willing to forego profits that would be earned in a way that might promote contrary values.  Moreover, they now seem increasingly willing to make political enemies of those with contrary values, and actively to promote the interests of their favored party and its ideology even at the expense of alienating some customers.

In his article, Scruton describes how, in Lenin’s Soviet Union, the Communist Party either obliterated all corporate persons other than itself, or so deeply infiltrated them that they became nothing more than its masks.  Nothing was left to stand between the Party and individuals, and the Party treated them as raw material to be molded according to a totalitarian plan rather than as fellow persons whose rights have to be respected and whose concerns and opinions had to be rationally engaged with.  The result, Scruton writes, was:

one corporate person standing triumphant amid the ruins of social life: the Party itself.  But it [was] a monstrous person, no longer capable of moral conduct; a person which cannot take responsibility for its actions, and which can confess to its faults only as ‘errors’ imposed on it by misguided members, and never as its own actions, for which repentance and atonement are due… Like its shortlived disciple, the Nazi party, it [was] a corporate psychopath, respected by none, and feared by all. (pp. 263-4)

In the United States, at the moment, there is no party with the size, apparatus, military muscle, or violent ruthlessness of Lenin’s Communist Party.  What we do have, in the Gnostic cult of Critical Race Theory, is a party line in search of a Party, an ideology as shrill, intolerant, and simple-minded as that of Lenin.  And its sweep through the political class, journalism, the federal government, schools and universities, churches, and corporate HR departments gives every appearance of a corporate mind coming to consciousness and attempting to assemble for itself a body.  Not by way of violent takeover, but by a kind of voluntary euthanasia of independent corporate persons, as they happily make of themselves the organs of this new entity which will rid the world of “whiteness,” “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity” and other objects of egalitarian hatred, as Lenin sought to rid the world of the bourgeois.

Whether this new “corporate psychopath” will in fact arise, and precisely what form it will take if it does, remain to be seen.  But as fallible corporate persons, like human persons, become increasingly infected with madness and evil, the one infallible corporate person that is the Church must get her bearings so that she might more effectively resist them.  For though she cannot die, she can become sick, to the extent that the human beings who make up her body are faithless, feckless, cowardly, and muddleheaded.  There can be only one proper response to the fanatical imposition of error and immorality to which our institutions are being increasingly given over.  It is not dialogue, and it is not fleeing for fear of the wolves, but rather holy intransigence in defense of orthodoxy and sanctity, born of faithful confidence in the Church’s divine Spouse, who will never leave her nor forsake her.

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted in slightly different form on the author’s blog and is posted here with his kind permission.)


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About Dr. Edward Feser 15 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

22 Comments

  1. BIG TECH VS. BIG OIL (a harangue, with apologies)

    I mean this comment as a constructive, philosophical, principled criticism in the spirit of Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and Bartolomé de las Casas.

    I have noticed many Catholics in the Conservative Movement calling for anti-Monopoly Laws to be aggressively applied to Big Tech (Facebook; Twitter; YouTube; Amazon; etc.) because those companies seem to be led by liberal Democrats and seem to somewhat use those private companies to promote liberal ideas.

    Meanwhile, Conservatives do NOT call for anti-Monopoly Laws to be aggressively applied to gigantic corporations (big Oil; big Coal; big Steel; big Agri; Wal-Mart) that seem to be led by conservative Republicans and seem to somewhat use those private companies to promote Conservative ideas.

    How can it be right for Conservatives to use the government’s positive laws to attack its political enemies, while shielding its political friends and allies from any similar application of the law?

    Isn’t that something straight out of the old Communist or Fascist playbooks?

    Don’t the Holy Scriptures command and demand that followers of Christ apply the same honest and fair scales to all alike, both allies and rivals?

    Don’t the systems of free markets, free competition, private property, and Capitalism depend, for their moral justification, on the laws being applied in an non-partisan way?

    Shouldn’t Conservatives, as a matter of principle, be willing for their ideas to be subject to open and strong competition in the marketplace of ideas, and even be subject to losing in that competition, if a majority of the people reject the systematic package of ideas that Conservatives are now offering? (In a 2-party system like ours, neither party allows an “a la carte” approach–voters are offered just two complete packages, with each package having some things that most voters don’t like or approve of.)

    If Conservatives want to win more in elections, and win more in the culture war, and win more souls for the true Christ and the true Church, shouldn’t they modify their package of ideas and policies to conform more to authentic Catholic Social Teaching while still not compromising on authentic Catholic Pro-Life Teaching? Isn’t this a no-brainer? (And isn’t that what the almost-unknown little American Solidarity Party is trying to do?)

    • Frankly, I cant recall EVER having my freedom of speech or religion hampered by Big agra, Big steel or Big Oil. These companies in fact make much of modern living possible ( heated homes, etc) and provide much needed jobs. In the reverse side, I have seen too many leftists in control of power such as dictatorial governors and faceless social media employees, attempt to control what I can and cannot say, where I can or cannot congregate and whether or not my church may be opened. Big business may be the favored whipping boy of the past. But the news and social media now pull most of the strings and control the population the often untrue narrative that they spew. Hysterical covid reports, anyone?? (Fake narrative: Officer Brian Sicknick was murdered by having his skull bashed in by a fire extinguisher by Trump supporters . Except it was NOT TRUE, Sicknick died of STROKE days later, and that was well known before his family was offered to wake him in the Rotunda in a crass and immoral political ploy designed to further their untrue narrative.)Keep believing that the political Right is the problem until they finally lock you up.

      • Thank you, LJ thank you! If I had my way your comment would be printed by every newspaper in the country and reported on by all the media outlets as a response to Dr. Edward Feser’s rather assuming article, on a subject he knows little about. I am referring to little truth about his subject. You are absolutely correct with your descriptions, especially where your say, “Big business may be the favored whipping boy of the past. But the news and social media now pull most of the strings and control the population the often untrue narrative that they spew.” I wish all Americans not only all good, practicing Catholics could read your comments. We would ALL be the better for it. But sadly, as you say the news and social media outlets pull most of the strings, thus would never do such a thing. ! Have you noticed that most of the comments written my readers are negative toward Feser?
        Thank you again and for you and your family, may God bless you and keep you and grant you his peace.
        For you and your family, may God bless you and keep you and grant you his peace.

        • “Dr. Edward Feser’s rather assuming article, on a subject he knows little about. …”

          And you know he knows little about this subject….how?

      • The commenter above wrote: “Frankly, I cant recall EVER having my freedom of speech or religion hampered by Big agra, Big steel or Big Oil.”

        Yes, a good and true observation. Most people would say the same thing, I think. Big Banks, Big Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Agra, Big Steel, Big Coal, etc., do not operate discussion online discussion forums like Facebook and Twitter, and do not sell books like Amazon, or show movies like Netflix.

        And yet, what if you or I were employed by a Big Bank or Big Oil or Big Agra? Would we be free to be known as someone who supports Social Justice as that was defined and promoted by Saint John Paul II, and as is promoted by today’s American Solidarity Party (that pushes for both Catholic Pro-Life Teaching and Catholic Social Justice Teaching)?

        Would your job at Big Bank or Big Oil or Big Agra be safe if you were known to support reforming Obamacare and its ban on exclusions for Preexisting Conditions, rather than simply repealing Obamacare and letting the free market decide who is and who isn’t subject to exclusions for Preexisting Conditions, or if you were known to support the principle of a government established minimum wage, or if you were known to support the expansion of Medicaid provide that it comes with a work requirement for working age people?

        In my personal experience, when you are employed by a corporation with Conservatives owners, you lose your freedom to express your political views freely, if you want to avoid being “canceled” by your employer. The same is true of corporations with Liberal owners, of course.

        And there’s another big factor that isn’t recognized as much because it happens “behind the scenes.”

        It is the ability of Big Banks, Big Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Agra, Big Steel, Big Coal, etc. to affect politics by making big, unlimited, secret donations to certain political advocacy groups that push for government policies that are part of the agenda of Conservative politicians and their party.

        The Supreme Court, in the famous case “Citizens United,” ruled that private property rights equals 1st amendment free rights.

        So, Big Banks, Big Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Agra, Big Steel, Big Coal, etc. are able to secretly provide unlimited funding for ads on CBS, Fox News, Facebook, etc. to make sure that millions of Americans hear Conservative arguments for polities without ever necessarily hearing Progressive counterarguments or Catholic counterarguments (authentically Catholic, as per John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Leo XIII).

        Conservative owned big corporations have profoundly more money to spend on politics, than do other corporations, because, let’s face it, Conservative people are better at Capitalism, and they love Capitalism.

        But Conservative people do not necessary love God or love their neighbor as themselves. Some do, some don’t. Being rich is no guarantee of sanctity or religious orthodoxy.

        This is why we need a widespread knowledge of Catholic Pro-Life Teaching and Catholic Social Justice Teaching.

        Sadly, both the right and left in today’s chaotic Catholic Church keep this knowledge virtually unknown. And so, the true face of Christ is kept partly hidden, and partly unloved.

        Well, let us pray and have faith, hope, and charity, in spite of it all

        Well, what does anyone think of that little “homily”? Any merit to it? What does it overlook?

    • “Bartolomé de las Casas” (and you don’t deserve to use his name as a pseudonym):

      “Meanwhile, Conservatives do NOT call for anti-Monopoly Laws to be aggressively applied to gigantic corporations”

      Your generalization on Conservatives may be applicable to the professional “conservatives” but it doesn’t apply to everyone who identifies as “conservative.” The truth is, unless you 100% off the grid, including the internet, your life is dependent upon cheap fossil fuel energy, and the oligarchs know this, and they will exploit it to make you even more dependent upon them. You are an unknowing tool of the oligarchs, and you can advocate for “Roman Catholic Social Teaching” all you want, but you will do nothing to diminish the power of the oligarchs and their hold over you.

  2. The “Catholic Distinctiveness” seems to me to be the only hope of the world.

    To me, both the Conservative Movement and the Progressive Movement are increasingly dominated by imprudent radicals who will accept no reasonable limits in their pursuit of total victory.

    By the “Catholic Distinctiveness” I mean mature, self-disciplined, long-term thinking men and women who are really devoted to the lifelong practice of the Seven Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Courage, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

  3. Not all corporations are driven only by making money from alien slave labor or sheltering their profits overseas. Some are guilty of dark money contributions to sleazy politicians, (Citizen’s United). Guilty of having their lawyers game the tax laws to pay no federal taxes, (Amazon in 2018 and 2019 made billions and had a zero tax liability while Bezos sinfully received a $129 million in refunds in 2019), Guilty of hiring sleazy lawyers lobbing to influence legislation in their favor. Can we run the US government without them? Do tell!

    • Bravo to morganB for writing this comment.

      Some giant corporations (notably those with Liberal leaders) affect politics by limiting speech on their private property Internet websites.

      Other giant corporations (notably those with Conservative leaders) affect politics by providing immense funding to certain politicians and parties to allow them to enormously expand the number of people who will hear or see what those politicians or parties have to say (per the Citizens United court ruling which said “Private Property = 1st Amendment Free Speech”).

      Bravo to Catholic World Report for publishing morganB’s comment.

      • Those of us who have read many comments by morganB over the years have learned two things: he is apparently a Catholic who knows very little about Catholic teaching, and he hates Trump with a rather worrisome intensity. If he does get some things right from time to time (and I’m not saying he did here), we can always remember what they say about broken clocks.

        • I will always love everybody, even the worst among us. How dare you
          criticize me about my Catholic faith! Check my facts, please.

          • I criticized your constantly shifting, often vague, and often ideological-personal approach to both the Faith and politics. Considering that I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds, of your comments here, I think I have a solid basis for my measured remarks.

          • “I will always love everybody, even the worst among us.” Right. You demonstrated that very consistently during the Trump presidency. You were the model of Christ-like love!

            You should be genuinely ashamed of yourself.

  4. This article is an excellent example of how far modernism has become entrenched in otherwise orthodox thought. By attributing natural personality to a manmade abstraction — a form of social organization called the corporation — Dr. Feser commits the error of Félicité de Lamennais (and Plato) by asserting that ideas created by man have existence independent of the minds that create them. De Lamennais’s “theory of certitude” claimed in part that the collective, an abstraction created by man, has reason and therefore natural rights that actual human beings created by God do not. It was why Charles Périn, who first defined modernism in the Catholic sense, considered de Lamennais the first modernist.

    On the contrary — institutions are not natural persons and cannot be virtuous or vicious in and of themselves. They are human constructs and only have such rights and structures of virtue or vice, not actual vices or virtues, as natural persons delegate to them. This is why Pope Saint John Paul II spoke of “structures of sin,” not “sinful structures.” As Venerable Fulton Sheen explained in “God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy” (1925), to vest the collective or any other manmade abstraction with personality inverts the whole order of creation, confusing the natural and the supernatural orders and subordinating God to man. It is why in Divini Redemptoris (1937), Pope Pius XI reminded us that “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form, is endowed with reason and a morally free will.” (§ 29).

    • Bravo to Michael D. Greaney for writing this comment.
      Bravo to Catholic World Report for publishing this comment.

  5. “Since they have such personal attributes (or something analogous to them, anyway) the tradition refers to them as moral persons or corporate persons.”

    This is true. I am personally aware of the term “moral person” being used. However, as has been noted it isn’t possible for a corporation to have a soul or to sin. Only its officers and any accessories sin. That said, God and the law do punish moral persons, and uphold their rights.

    “Business corporations exist in order to make money, and like human persons, they can be tempted to do so in immoral ways.”

    This isn’t true. Anyone who is sufficiently knowledgeable concerning theology knows that businesses – like humans – exist to serve God – NOT money. Principally this would be with regards to the virtue of justice. This means that employees and customers must be treated justly. ONLY immoral behavior must be punished, and the customer must be served to the extent that it doesn’t involve injustice towards employees.

    In addition, I agree with Michael D. Greaney (April 24, 2021 at 9:45 am) except for the “latent content” in his remarks concerning – significantly – John Paul II.

  6. Essence and existence a reality marks a person and its extension as a legal definition for corporations. Rights are fluid and corporate entities by nature require protective rights. Universals consequently have a place in the scheme of things despite Ockham’s Nominalism. Even Aquinas’ middle ground rationale assumed inherent prescient knowledge of universals required in apprehension of singular identities. Dr E Feser’s Mind of the Church is defined as “the Church’s attitude or policy held by modern popes in matters of faith or morals not explicitly taught in official pronouncements” (Catholic Culture). Although Feser attributes papal infallibility to this concept [a universal] it may require refinement since it’s Christ a definitive person who assures that. Although the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ a corporate entity understood as a person may be understood in support of the rationale for freedom from error. Sensus fidei is an example of a long held doctrine that truth is found in the body of Church faithful, although that excludes consensus as the determinant. The key wording is Church faithful, those holding to Apostolic tradition as distinguished from today’s Apostasy that finds consensus among some leading hierarchy as well as presbyter and laity. When that truth required for salvation is blurred and papal correction withheld the beacon remains the eternal Word. Saint Mark 3:22–30 [his feast April 25] implies that the unforgivable sin is to sin against the Holy Spirit, to confound Him with the spirit of evil, to deny, from pure malice, the divine character of Christ’s works. For us it means the repudiation by paradigmatic change of the Gospel of Christ.

  7. From Dr. Edward Feser’s article above, please allow me to quote a really brilliant portion:

    “There can be only one proper response to the fanatical imposition of error and immorality to which our institutions are being increasingly given over. It is…holy intransigence in defense of orthodoxy and sanctity.”

    To me, the key parts of that were “defense of orthodoxy and sanctity.” I.e., not just Faith (in the sense of formal, verbal conformity to orthodoxy), but also Charity (as the Scriptures and the Saints always say, you can’t say that you love God if you don’t love family, neighbor, enemy, foreigner, and sinner).

    I also wonder: Is the present time the only time in Church history in which the Church has been faced with “the fanatical imposition of error and immorality”?

    I can think of some other such notable occasions of that, such as:

    (1)
    Nazi rule in Germany from 1933 to 1945, and in most of Europe from 1939-1945:

    During this “fanatical imposition of error and immorality,” the Church was perhaps the only non-military institution to ever force the Nazis to back down, when Catholic bishops in Germany exposed and protested the Nazi euthanasia program for the disabled.

    And yet, many wonder if the Church could or should have done more, such as publicly exposing and protesting the Nazi systematic mass murder of civilians (including women and children) in Poland and elsewhere.

    Such would have been risky for Catholics, but might have resulted in Hitler being overthrown by Catholic German generals and other officers in as little as 24 hours, if the Catholic bishops had just clearly informed the German people of what the Hitler government was doing in those concentration camps.

    If Hitler could have been killed in a coup in 1942 or 1943, perhaps the UK and USA could have reached a peace settlement with the new leaders of Germany, and thereby prevented the USSR’s cruel Communist domination of Eastern Europe in the 45 years that followed the end of WW2.

    (2)
    The Spanish Conquest of the Americas following 1492:

    The Church did hold several commissions to study the question as to whether the natives of the Americas had the same rights as Europeans, whether the natives could morally be enslaved, whether their lands and riches could be morally seized by military conquest, and so on.

    And, in general, the Church issued treatises in defense of the rights and dignity of the natives.

    But this took place over a period of decades, and meanwhile the Spanish Conquistadors and rulers in the new world pretty much did whatever they wanted, unchecked.

    The king of Spain did order the arrest of Christopher Columbus for his crimes against the natives in the new world, and had him shipped back to Spain in chains. But then, after a short imprisonment, for reasons unknown, the king released Columbus, and authorized him to make a further expedition to the new world, though he was denied any further right to rule over natives in the new world.

    Some priests did great work in caring for body and soul of the natives.

    I think that’s a far description of the overall picture.

    As I recall, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI acknowledged that Spanish conquerors and rulers of the new world did much that was immoral to the natives.

    Of course, some of the native peoples were doing lots of immoral things to each other before the Spanish ever arrived.

    But overall, many still wish the Church could have demanded and insisted that the Spanish Catholic newcomers set a better moral example of “orthodoxy and sanctity” as followers of Christ.

    • Selective wishful thinking on an ‘effective’ Catholic response to the Nazi era. When it was tried, the German response was devastating. What happened, Casas, to those 40,000 Dutch Jews immediately rounded-up and never heard from again?

  8. Re: “moral” vs. “natural” personhood

    Corporations of any sort (including cities) have long been given the status of legal personhood, which is a convenient legal fiction to facilitate certain transactions and determine liability, etc. Making analogies between corporations and real persons (human beings) works only because corporations are composed of and led by real persons.

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