Provided you haven’t been living in a cave, you’re probably aware that earlier this week the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a verdict in Hobby Lobby’s attempt to exempt themselves from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it would require them to provide insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs, which just isn’t cricket with magical Jesus. Despite the fact that Hobby Lobby is a private, for-profit entity, and that the medical facts do not support any claim that the drugs Hobby Lobby were objecting to have an abortifacient affect, the Supreme Court felt that it only required that the owners of the company have a “sincere belief” that they do, and thus they get exempted from the mandate. This decision isn’t particularly surprising, though it is far more potentially dangerous than some of the pundits would have you believe. People like to point to preexisting arguments about blood transfusions to demonstrate that Scalia’s insistence that this decision is very narrow will not affect other areas of insurance. Unfortunately for those pundits, the only time religious freedom has been intervened with is to rule that parents or guardians, biological or custodial, cannot refuse lifesaving medical treatments on behalf of a minor child based on religious exemptions. Adults, presuming that they are found to be of sound mind, are free to refuse treatments based on the dictates of their imaginary friend of choice.
Yet I’m going off topic. This decision is unsurprising not because Scalia is a far-right nutbag, and not even entirely because of the increasing legislative misogyny that’s been going around. Rather, the decision is unsurprising based on earlier precedent that corporations are persons, and are entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof. So earlier today when Twitter user seelix made a comment asking if we could subject corporations to the Voight-Kampff test of “Do Androids Dream of Eletric Sheep”/Blade Runner. Being that I am in fact a philosopher, and my areas of speciality once upon a time were existential metaphysics and phenomenological intersubjectivity, subjects which very much deal with the idea of personhood, and how we might best maximize personhood, I decided to take the question seriously.
The first step was to determine if the idea of applying the Voight-Kampff test is a sound one. It’s not. Not, because as Ms. Finke fears the test would privilege the neurotypical (though she is correct in that it would do so), but because the Voight-Kampff test is a measure of empathy and physiological response (to make sure you aren’t providing coached answers that you don’t actually feel), but because while empathy might be useful for separating humans from robots it’s only useful as a measure of personhood if we can first establish that it is a trait unique to persons. As I’ve previously discussed, I don’t think claims of mirror neurons adequately explain the observed phenomena we dub “empathy.” Since we can’t even isolate empathy as a distinctly human trait, whether or not it might be lacking in robots, we can’t really apply it to corporations; the only thing we would learn is that they’re not human, but then we already knew that without the need for a test.
If we can’t use the Voight-Kampff test, is there any standard we can use? First we need to determine what a person is. In casual conversation we tend to use person and human to mean the same thing. In some ways this isn’t particularly surprising; human persons are, after all, the only persons we know. Yet the threshold to be defined a human is rather low – one merely needs to have the proper sequence of DNA. That’s it. I’m human when I wake up in the morning, and human when I go to bed at night no matter how much I might want to be a wombat (and I really want to be a wombat).
The threshold for determining personhood is a bit more messy. Is it akin to consciousness? Are we simply disembodied Cartesian persons driving around our meatcars through an interface conveniently located in the pineal gland? The answer to that one is probably not. In truth, personhood (and consciousness itself) appears to be an emergent property (an epiphenomenon, if you want to be snooty). However, not in the way that mind is often touted as being an emergent property of brain. Consciousness and personhood are not distinct from body. We are, as I’ve touched on before, our bodies. They are our sole interface with the world. Is your brain an important part of that? Sure, but your brain couldn’t do its thing without the rest of you. So in the case of human persons we need to toss out any conception of a brain/body difference and treat it as one system.
Which still doesn’t get us to where we really need to be. Okay, personhood isn’t something that just sits in our brains, and it isn’t something that’s inherent in our DNA. That’s because it isn’t an inherent property of being human, but is an emergent, existential performance. That’s both more and less complicated than it sounds. What makes is a person a person is the act of being a person, which is something that we’re taught. Again, this is something I’ve touched on before when I covered the idea that there’s even a meaningful ontological category of “geekiness.” What actually makes a person a geek is that they identify themselves as such, and perform the role they have selected for themselves and which is arbitrated by the world around them. So, I’m afraid that I have to inform Chris Moriarty’s character of Cohen from the Spin series that he’s quite wrong; while we might not question our conscious personhood, and we do take it for granted, it’s not something that comes default simply by being human.
So what are some of the features of being a person? Again, it’s a messy question, and I’ve already hit 900, so let’s just focus on some of the big ones like language and self-awareness.
Language is some awesome stuff. Without it I wouldn’t be able to natter on like this, and you wouldn’t be able to roll your eyes and shake your head in despair. So the question is, do corporations have language, and do they communicate? At first blush the answer certainly seems to be yes. Lawyers, after all, spoke up on Hobby Lobby’s behalf, and it would require a particularly cloistered individual to have never been exposed to the tortured, content-less brandspeak that corporations like to throw at us (particularly when they feel it prudent to provide a non-answer or issue a non-apology). They also communicate within and among themselves; interestingly mirroring the way human cells communicate. Yet consider our first example of corporate language – Hobby Lobby’s lawyers spoke on its behalf. The corporation as an entity communicates, but it doesn’t communicate in and of itself, but communicates only through the components that make it up.
What about awareness? Is a corporation aware of itself as an entity? There are of course those religious and philosophical positions that contend that the idea of self is an illusion. To them I say thppppppt and present empirical evidence. I am aware of myself as myself, thus my self exists in the only way that is in fact meaningful. Can the corporation say the same? The owners of Hobby Lobby contend that their corporation has values. They claim it has a mission. Both of these things can be passed on to the individual employees; the cells that make up the body of Hobby Lobby. They can even live their lives both within and without the corporate body in such a way as to embrace these concepts. Yet in each case what we have is the awareness of individual units as part of a group. There is never a moment in which Hobby Lobby becomes aware of itself as itself; it is aware of itself only as the performance of individual cells.
Regardless of what additional elements of personhood we wish to introduce, we are going to find in each case that the problem remains the same; a corporation never becomes an emergent system in and of itself. It’s as if each of the individual cells of a body are aware of their existence as a body, and go about doing their best at trying to function in the role of the person that body represents, but are never able to overcome their nature as individual cells; which is not a question of cohesion, but again is a question of a unique, complex system arising from the underlying elements. So while I can see the possibility of computer systems, sufficiently advanced animals (since that is indeed all that human persons are), or any number of other possible iterations of personhood, I find it hard to conceive of any circumstances in which a corporation as an entity in and of itself would be able to achieve thsis emergent phenomenon and become a person in and of itself. Suck it, SCOTUS.