Micah J. Schwartzman
Steve Walt

Morality, Ontology, and Corporate Rights

Law & Ethics of Human Rights


Does the ontology of corporations matter for corporate rights? Much of the philosophical literature on corporate rights centers on ontological questions about groups. The question is whether corporations are real entities to which rights or other entitlements can be non-metaphorically ascribed. At the same time, work on whether corporations count as persons often relies on fairly strong normative requirements. We argue that the focus of both strands of literature is misplaced. Whether corporations have rights, and the sort of rights they have, is a question of moral theory. The substantive claims of the relevant moral theory, which may be weak or strong, determine corporate entitlements; ontological truths about corporations therefore do not constrain the sorts of entities that can have moral entitlements. The going theory, not conceptual requirements or explanatory criteria, determines the conditions a corporation must satisfy to have various entitlements. We argue that this truth is independent of the deontic, consequentialist, or hybrid character of the moral theory.
This paper defends three claims. First, the ontological status of a group as an intentional agent is neither necessary nor sufficient for its moral status or entitlements. A moral theory in principle could recognize groups that are not intentional agents, and a group’s existence as an intentional agent does not by itself require moral recognition. A moral commitment to corporate rights and duties therefore is not determined by the indispensability of groups in explaining group behavior. Second, the substantive claims of a moral theory (understood broadly) determine the conditions for assigning rights and duties to corporations. Third, this moral conception has both legal and moral implications for the treatment of corporations.


Micah J. Schwartzman & Steven D. Walt, Morality, Ontology, and Corporate Rights, 11 Law & Ethics of Human Rights 1-29 (2017).

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