Corporate Personhood: Lay Perceptions and Ethical Consequences

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Modern conceptions of corporate personhood have spurred considerable debate about the rights that society should afford business organizations. Across eight experiments, we compare lay perceptions of how corporations and people use rights, and also explore the consequences of these judgments. We find that people believe corporations, compared to humans, are similarly likely to use rights in protective ways that prevent harm but more likely to use rights in nonprotective ways that appear independent from—or even create—harm (Experiments 1a through 1c and Experiment 2). Because of these beliefs, people support corporate rights to a lesser extent than human rights (Experiment 3). However, people are more supportive of specific corporate rights when we framed them as serving protective functions (Experiment 4). Also as a result of these beliefs, people attribute greater ethical responsibility to corporations, but not to humans, that gain access to rights (Experiments 5a and 5b). Despite their equitability in many domains, people believe corporations and humans use rights in different ways, ultimately producing different reactions to their behaviors as well as asymmetric moral evaluations.

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