Define By Consequences

If corporations must be treated as “persons” for the purpose of campaign contributions – as the Supreme Court mandated last year in the infamous Citizens United decision – why shouldn’t they also enjoy “personal privacy”? The case threatens to weaken an important tool used to hold government and corporations accountable. … The court should not repeat that mistake by again allowing corporations to masquerade as people. (more)

People often argue about “definitions” as if the main issue was conceptual essences, or “cutting nature at its joints.” But in fact the vast majority definition disputes are really about social convention (including law). For example, I was interviewed recently on our changing “definition of death.” I said we’d long had a perfectly sensible and timeless concept: death is when life is no longer possible. What people want instead is an easy to apply criteria, so they can know when it is socially acceptable to “give up” on someone, or to declare someone a “murderer.” The timeless concept doesn’t serve this role well, so they seek something else. (Which then limits cryonics.)

Similarly, we’ve long had a decent concept of “father,” the man from whom half of a kid’s DNA comes. But some say that since it is good for each kid to have the support of a man, we should declare a cuckolded husband to be the “father” of his wife’s kid. Debates about the definitions of “naked” or “porn” are similarly about social convenience.

The issue of calling firms “people” is also really about social consequences of doing so, even though many talk as if there was a “natural kind” out there to discover, if only we did enough conceptual analysis. I’ve argued that since the function of “free speech” is best served by “free hearing“, it shouldn’t matter who wants to talk. Unless we are willing to censor, we should let citizens hear any sources they desire.

Similarly, we should ask about the social functions served by privacy protections. Yes weaker privacy protections make it easier to hold firms accountable, but that applies to individual humans as well. And if stronger privacy protects folks more against abuse by governments or others, that benefit should apply to firms as well. Yes people may just have a direct preference for privacy, but such preferences may be weak, and perhaps people working at a firm feel similarly about the privacy of their firm.

For most definition disputes, pretending to resolve it via conceptual analysis just isn’t very honest. It is more honest to argue about the desirability of various consequences of alternate social conventions.

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  • Khoth

    Exactly. If AT&T want the privacy protection that’s granted to individuals, they should argue for it to be a law, rather than trying to pretend that “person” in some law that was never intended to apply to companies does apply to them too.

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  • Vilhelm S

    Most arguments about definitions might really be about policy, but this point is rather undermined when you then go “though of course _my_ definitions of death and fatherhood are sensible, timeless and decent”. Your wording suggests that you actually subjectively believe in a conceptually essential meaning of the word “father”. Probably the people who argue for different definitions also do.

    • anon

      Agreed. The issue is not whether definitions are about some kind of “conceptual essence”: they obviously are. The problem is that most words are identified with clusters of empirically related concepts. Words like “father” or “death” rely on the assumption that some features are highly correlated, e.g. the biological parent vs. the person who actually exercises parental authority or guardianship over the child.

      It could be argued that where these correlations break down (such as with adoptive parents, sperm donation etc.) using a single word is no longer appropriate.

  • That seems to me a misreading of the Citizens United ruling. First, the ruling addressed speech, not campaign contributions. I suspect, much to the dismay of Tom DeLay, that the courts will uphold the Texas law which bans corporate campaign contributions. Second, the ruling was based on the 1st amendment, which explicitly protects a free press. The press was corporate even at the time of the founders. It’s not the court turning corporations into people, but the 1st amendment, that explicitly refers to corporations in its free speech protections.

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  • Similarly, we’ve long had a decent concept of “father,” the man from whom half of a kid’s DNA comes.

    That has never been the legal definition of “father”. Haven’t you heard of adoption?

    The issue of calling firms “people” is also really about social consequences of doing so, even though many talk as if there was a “natural kind” out there to discover, if only we did enough conceptual analysis.

    Does anyone seriously make that kind of argument in favor of corporate personhood? Whether or not you think c.p. is a good idea, it is very farfetched to think that corporations are members of the same natural kind as individual humans. So, can we have at least one reference for someone making the argument you claim to be debunking?

    • scott

      Adoption doesn’t make a man a father, biologically speaking. And father is a biological term; it became a separate legal term somewhat divorced from its actual meaning when lawmakers decided that it would be more convenient if adopting and marrying into families conferred the same rights and responsibilities as biological ties did.

  • Skylar English

    Isn’t this really a demonstration of our hidden recognition that the reason we favor strong privacy is to protect our ability to break laws we disagree with discreetly. We dislike corporations having privacy because when a company breaks a law, it is not likely to be doing drugs, reading banned books or having three wives. The laws that corporations are wont to break using privacy are of the kind that we all tend to strongly agree about, the kind that we also don’t want governments or people breaking. We fear corporate privacy because we all know that corporations, while made of humans, are not human and are capable of making decisions that single humans tend to fear to make. We fear allowing corporations the rights of humans because we fear what they will do with them. Or is this just me?

    • That’s an interesting and plausible suggestion.

    • I agree with Robin that it’s plausible but it raises the question of why we support laws against “doing drugs, reading banned books or having three wives” if we don’t mind them being broken.

      The corporation has had legal personhood before 1886. American courts were following the English tradition of Blackstone, and even that in some ways can go all the way back to the Romans. It is of course though a “person” for certain purposes and there are a limited number of things one can deduce from its designation as a person. In this case I think the court correctly pointed out that the law in question expressly provided for what privacy claims a corporation could make (the wisdom of those provisions being up for the legislature to decide).

  • Confronted with someone who demands new definitions, two tactics are possible: resist the change because of its triviality and irrelevance to the subject (e.g., social consequences); or accept the change, also because of its triviality and irrelevance, and translate your position into the new vocabulary.

    Or so it seems to me … trivially. So, I can’t fathom Eliezer’s view that most terms can’t be arbitrarily redefined.

    • Khoth

      If everyone was perfectly rational, then yes. But people have a tendency to assume that the world is cut up along the lines drawn by definitions, so even though it shouldn’t matter, it does.

      And more relevantly to the case that triggered Robin’s post on the subject, changing the definition of a term that’s used in a law does have a real effect, unless every law using the term is examined and appropriately updated, which really isn’t going to happen.

      • Jess Riedel

        Well, it’s not just a matter of that people are irrational but, probably more importantly, that we have finite intellectual capacity. It’s pretty much impossible to think efficiently about a subject with bad (even if consistent) definitions.

  • richard silliker

    A corporation as a person. Show me the mechanism that allows a corporation to shape the value. Where is the lever?

    A corporation as a person. Does this mean that it will forsake the poison pill?

    Random House Unabridged Dicitionary – Second Edition

  • Nathan Wosnack

    Since the year 1886 in the United States (In RE: Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394), corporations under US Code have been given the same legal rights and privileges as human “persons”, that is, the time-honored Rules of the English Language non-legally assumed definition of flesh and blood “man”, “woman” (the common law definition as described in THE INSTITUTES OF JUSTINIAN 533, and Magna Carta 1215).

    These convoluted legalese words: “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;” U.S.C. > TITLE 1 > CHAPTER 1. This has been rightfully established, and it leads to an interesting issue; if the United States passes a bill into “law” that requires that courts prevent corporations to masquerade as people then those same legal rights of citizens would need to be redefined since citizens utilize the “legal” name (all capital letters, e.g. JOHN SMITH) when performing commercial transactions. If corporate personhood is broadly defined as individuals and corporations (among others), then one’s legal name – which in itself is a corporation and is attached to the citizen via an assumed joinder – could presumably lose legal rights and privileges could they not? Would the US government allow citizens to exist without legal names, instead allowing them to enter into contracts and perform commercial using their common law name (regular spelling of first and family name, e.g. John Smith)? Would legal names of citizens then cease to exist making that individual legally dead?

    Robin, I tend to agree with your view that death is when life is no longer possible. “Possible” being the keyword by limitations of currently existing technologies as it does not factor in future vitrification advancements in cryonics body/head preservation, “non-evasive static uploading”, a term coined by Aubrey de Grey to define the digital backing up of our cognitive state, and mind and consciousness uploading as described in Hans Moravec’s book ‘Mind Children’, as well as high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging advancements, RNAi enhancements, etc. The definitions of death varies individually, medically and legal too. Asking cryonics members may garner different resulting answers than ones coming from people unaware or non-supportive of unconventional life-extension theories and initiatives. There is a clear distinction between “natural death” (death out of natural causes), “violent death” (caused through the use of force), “brain death” (cessation of all functions of a brain), “wrongful death” (death through any willful/negligent act) as defined by the medical community, and “legal death” as defined by law. Legal death presumes that not only an individual has died, but also out of prolonged absence or disappearance.

    Privacy. If corporations are able to write non-disclosure agreements (NDA) protecting the privacy of trade secrets and terms of a particular contract they have with an individual or entity then why can’t citizens – men and women with *legally attached corporate status* – do the exact same thing, and compel performance? Corporations and individuals are legally synonymous after all. Citizens with an basic understanding of contract law could create court-enforceable contracts for the protection of their privacy. Some individuals (in the highly controversial at times) liberty-based “free man movements” have successfully enforced (in and outside of court) private contracts upon government and agencies that violate their own rules (bylaws/statutes) to which they are bound. Individuals, by utilizing a Notary Public, and can mail “Notice of Intent”/”Claim of Rights”, and subsequent “Notice of Non Response”, and “Notice of Default in Dishonor” (or similar) documents to lawfully enforce rules on their privacy. If the recipient fails to reply to a lawful claim or order outlined in the paperwork in a specified time period, they tacitly (implied or inferred from actions or statements) acquiesce to the terms of said contract; with penalties for violations.

    If corporations are benefiting from citizen rights (i.e. privacy) as legal persons, then citizens – also legal persons, should be able to presumably benefit from the aforementioned corporate rights.

    – Nathan Wosnack

  • vaniver

    The idea of a “right to hear” bothers me because it implies a “right to not hear.” I had a brief correspondence with someone who complained that their local library had a “no censorship” policy with regards to the internet, and so men would use the library computers to watch porn (and, as this is a library, there were often children about). They thought this violated their first amendment rights, because they didn’t want to see that (and didn’t want children exposed to it).

    When the first Amendment is defined in terms of speech, I feel justified disagreeing with them. When it’s defined in terms of hearing, I find it more difficult.

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  • I also think you are defining things how you want them to be defined. But I was reminded by your discussion of defining “death” when I heard the claim that “dead people can have orgasms”. Of course she followed it up that it was just “beating heart cadavers” who are “legally dead” because of their brains. Hat-tip to Radley Balko.