What sorts of things are corporations — and charities and associations and churches and unions and so on? Should we think of such organizations as things that are themselves capable of taking action, or should we think of them as tools that people use when they want to take action?
Case in point: the controversial organizations discussed in this recent NYT editorial, The Secret Election:
…the most disturbing story of this year’s election is embodied in an odd combination of numbers and letters: 501(c)(4). That is the legal designation for the advocacy committees that are sucking in many millions of anonymous corporate dollars, making this the most secretive election cycle since the Watergate years….
Now, recall that, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, all the talk was about the notion of corporate personhood — despite the fact that the majority decision made only passing reference to the concept. (See my blog entry here.) But notice that there’s no reference to corporate or organizational personhood in the NYT editorial. It’s simply not at issue. What’s at issue is the use of organizations as a certain kind mechanism, or tool. Note that, according to the NYT, interested corporations are using 501(c)(4) organizations as a conduit, with a court-sanctioned secrecy shield. The question here isn’t so much what the 501(c)(4)’s are doing, but what they are being used for.
I think that difference in perspective — between thinking of organizations as agents and thinking of organizations as tools — is worth taking seriously. Now, to be clear, I don’t think it makes sense to say that one or the other of those perspectives is the right one, for all cases. I strongly suspect there are cases where each makes sense. Clearly there are differences, and each will highlight certain aspects of a situation at the expense of others.
For example: focusing on the organization’s capacities as an agent (or quasi-agent, if you like) allows us to consider the possibility that the organization, as a whole, is deserving of punishment for wrongs that result from its actions; but it can obscure the interests and motives of the people behind the organization. (In the present case, if we focus on the personhood and/or rights of the 501(c)(4)’s, we might be distracted from crucial questions about the political motives of the people making use of them. On the other hand, focusing on the organization’s instrumental nature can obscure the complicated ways in which organizations transform and sometimes mistranslate the intentions of the individuals behind them. But it can also facilitate an engineering perspective on organizations, one that allows us to think about how the organization — as a complex mechanism — can be taken apart, re-engineered, and put back together again. So, in the present case, thinking about the 501(c)(4)’s as mechanisms allows us more readily to consider which of the legally-constituted features of 501(c)(4)’s are serving useful functions, and which (if any) ought to be re-engineered.
Now, I’ve argued before that there are certain purposes for which we simply must regard corporations as persons — as particular kinds of agents (“must” because important goals that we all endorse would be impossible to achieve otherwise). But when it comes to particular instances of ethical assessment of a corporation or other kind of organization, we should ask ourselves: is this one of the cases where it’s useful to think of the corporation as an agent, or is this one of the cases where it’s useful to think of the corporation as an instrument? Or are there other ways of framing the issues that serve us better still?