Is a corporation a body-less brain?

As part of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canadian curators and artists are being celebrated through the Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition. Every two weeks a new exhibit goes live. The 7th exhibit was called Corporatization – A Persistent L’il System and was curated by Milena Placentile. The pieces explore “the impact of corporations on the world, including on shared public and personal life” (Curatorial Statement). One piece that struck me was “In Sit You” by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins (see left), which reflects on the “pervasiveness of corporate advertising in public spaces” (About this Exhibit). The park bench echoes the hues of the billboard. I see it as a playful description of a potentially sinister interaction: the insidious influence of disembodied entities (e.g., corporations) in our public and private lives.

Ironically, a corporation is incorporeal. In the context of law, one cannot imagine physically assaulting a corporation like one could a person, yet a corporation has some protection under the law like an actual person. A corporation has its own “rights, privileges and responsibilities distinct from its members” and is considered a “legal person”. Instead of concentrating on a physical body, corporations protect their intellectual property. Is it possible that a corporation acts less like a whole person and more like a disembodied brain – a brain in a vat?

In the famous thought experiment referred to as “brain in a vat” one has the image of a brain floating in a beaker with many probes inserted into it. The brain is considered to have the same inputs as a brain in a person would have, and experiences life identically to as if it were in a body. Philosophers ask whether that brain could know that it is in a vat?

I am wondering about the flip-side of this thought experiment. What are the ethics around how we treat a body-less brain? If corporations can be thought of as body-less people, then how might that alter an ethical relationship between an individual and a corporation?

The “facelessness” of large corporations is an oft quoted rationalization for adhering to a different set of ethics. Recently Parish Priest Father Tim Jones was sharply criticized in the media for suggesting that shoplifting is morally superior to robbery while offering guidance to his parishioners in desperate times. Father Jones said, “I would ask that they do not steal from small, family businesses, but from national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices.” Although some may feel that his argument is well-reasoned – cause more people to suffer less than fewer to suffer more – it seems based on the premise that we don’t see the people who suffer. It seems unjustifiable to assume a different ethical stance for shops with or without faces.

Back to the “In Sit You” piece, I wonder how these disembodied persons have become so effective in their influence? In the absence of physical strength, corporations are able to sway our minds. Their effect is from one brain to another.

When I consider the thought experiment of a brain in a vat, I wonder about the ethics of allowing a disembodied brain to suffer. Does one have to have a body to be worthy of ethical treatment? What responsibilities would we have to a brain in a vat?

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3 thoughts on “Is a corporation a body-less brain?

  1. We live in a society where corporations are willing to pick up the costs of public conveniences or entertainment so that they might attract customers. I am in on the game as soon as I accept the convenience or amusement or education that I am offered for free. Whether I encounter the message on TV or the net or a highway sign or a magazine ad, they have subsidized my cost of the service or product that I have just consumed from a TV programs to garbage and recylcing containers on the street.

    Besides, if the corporation blows it, I can sue them in court for not keeping their promises. Corporations have both rights and responsibilities.

  2. Very, very interesting thoughts, Elana.

    For a while, I’ve had a vaguely similar intuition. While I’m wary of pressing the brain analogy too far, I do think that it’s very useful to think of corporations as having various “mental” states in perhaps a less metaphorical way than we are accustomed to – interests, scruples, beliefs, desires, et cetera.

    However, thinking about it that way actually leads me in sort of the opposite ethical direction. When we conceive of a corporation as a kind of thinking, planning, goal-seeking entity, it seems to me that we can quickly come to view it as a potentially powerful symbiotic ally, but nonetheless one whose fundamental interests are wholly indifferent to our well-being as humans. If corporate responsibility to the shareholders – to the fiscal bottom line – can be construed as the be-all end-all of a corporation’s desire profile, then it seems to me a creature not unlike a wild horse: more liable than not to trample us all in pursuit of its ends. As the 19th and 20th centuries especially have taught us, the quest to maximize profit often has side effects of cultural, environmental, and social devastation; a just and opportunity-rich society is not the ideal habitat for an unbridled corporate entity.

    It seems to me, then, that what the analogy teaches us is that we are, in a sense, no longer at the top of the “food chain” amongst the mind-bearing denizens of this planet. We – and especially our interests in justice – are constantly imperiled by beings vastly more powerful than any one of us by ourselves. The imperative, then, is to throw reins on these strange beasts that have sprung up amongst us, so that we may bring their interests into alignment with our own. Sure, it may be true that it would be nicest to respect their autonomy as beings. But this is equally true in the case of a wild animal traipsing around a human village. It would be morally best if we could afford it full ethical consideration; but the crucial pragmatic perspective has to focus on what would be *better* for everyone, and the relationship between humans and horses seems an instructive analogy in that sense.

  3. Roland’s comment reminds me of one of the deep insights that emerges from William Gibson’s 1984 book Neuromancer. In his dystopic, the world is no longer divided into nation states whose citizens can essentially be thought of as the shareholders of a corporation called a nation, but rather by multinationals whose interests are solely for their shareholders and no longer include ‘the folk’. The pursuit of globalization has, to a degree probably unimagined by even Gibson in 1984, brought us closer to that reality.

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