Riddle me this: When is a person not a person? Or, more accurately, when is a person not a human being?
This week, Matt and I investigated the surprisingly complicated (and often contentious) topic of legal personhood.
Let’s start with corporate personhood. Many U.S. residents were first introduced to the idea in 2009, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. By 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that “the government cannot place restrictions on election spending by corporations.” However, the notion of corporate personhood is much, much older than this particular case. Corporations have the right to hire and fire, the right to sue, to own property and, with some qualifications, to spend money during elections. Supporters see this as a protection of free speech, while opponents believe the ruling opens the door to massive corruption. Of course, there are still some things that corporations can’t do, such as run for office, marry or place a vote. Consequentially, some lawyers call corporations “metaphysical people,” because they count as a person in some cases, but not in others.
And there’s a second group vying for legal personhood: animals.
Groups like Cetacean Rights and The Great Ape Project seek legal personhood for cetaceans, primates and elephants. This is called ‘nonhuman personhood,’ and it’s meant to guarantee that these highly intelligent animals receive some of the same basic rights (theoretically) enjoyed by human beings. Unfortunately, this concept is often misinterpreted. The groups mentioned aren’t necessarily arguing that dolphins or gorillas should have all of the rights that a human being does — instead, these proposed laws are more about obligating states to avoid slaughtering the animals. The movement has made some headway, and in the future it may be possible that some states consider these animals as ‘nonhuman persons.’
There aren’t many people outright opposed to this idea, but there are some concerns. Are we, for example, guilty of well-intentioned anthropomorphism? And the debate over animal rights inevitably leads to one enormously depressing point: As a species, humans haven’t exactly done a great job protecting the basic rights of other human beings.
It’s true. Over the span of civilized history, various groups of people haven’t been treated as, well, people. Slaves, ethnic minorities, criminals, children and women have all, at some point, suffered from a partial or total lack of personhood. And in the modern age, an estimated 12 million people are stateless, meaning that their country of residence feels no legal obligation to protect their basic human rights. A stateless individual may be a refugee, or may have resided in the same country for his or her entire life. A stateless person often doesn’t get the essential things that most other human beings take for granted: the right to work, to have a birth (or death) certificate, the right to free movement or the right to hold a passport. In a very real and damaging sense, these human beings may not legally be considered people by their country of residence.
The United Nations continues to advocate on behalf of the stateless, but it’s tough to predict what, if any, progress the coming years will bring.
Ah, enough about us — what do you think? Should corporations enjoy legal personhood? Should animals? Let us know.
Thanks for reading. Check out a shortlist of our sources below, and feel free to befriend us on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. If you’d rather not go the social media route, then just shoot us an email. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Shortlist of Selected Sources
Block, Melissa and John Witt. “What is the basis for corporate personhood?” NPR, 24 October 2011.
Clark, Josh. “Why do corporations have the same rights as you?” HowStuffWorks.com, accessed 25 April, 2013.
“Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins.” Cetacean Rights, 22 May 2010.
Glendinning, Lee. “Spanish parliament approves ‘human rights’ for apes.” The Guardian, 26 June 2008.
Johnson, Eric Michael. “Nonhuman Personhood Rights (and Wrongs).” Scientific American, 9 March 2012.
Keim, Brandon. “A Different Take on Great Ape Personhood.” Wired, 19 December 2008.
Scheve, Tom. “What is personhood?” HowStuffWorks.com, accessed 24 April, 2013.
“Stateless People,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Accessed April 28th, 2013.
“U.N. Conventions on Statelessness,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Accessed April 28th, 2013.