Richard Heyduck writes the following in a post published yesterday. I quote the post in its entirety for its full force and then I will add some thoughts afterward.
In the past year or so there has been an uproar about corporations being treated as persons. Continuing my review of Bobbitt’s Shield of Achilles..., I find this thesis (p. 365):
The society of nation-states developed a constitution that attempted to treat states as if they were individuals in a political society of equal, autonomous, rights-baring citizens… In the society of nation-states, the most important right of a nation was the right of self-determination.
If you're familiar with Bobbitt’s work, you know he is exploring the transition from the nation state to the market state. In this context, and taking this quote into the picture, I have several thoughts.
1. The notion that a non-individual person would have attributes of a person, or in some instances be treated as a person is not a new development, and certainly not a evil act by corporate powers seeking to control our lives. While I'm not qualified to speak to the history of the corporation, I do know that the church has a long-standing tradition of thinking of itself as the "body of Christ," (corpus Christi in Latin), in one sense a corporate person.
2. The modern age has seen a loss of ecclesiological substance. I'd even say that our commitment to a biblical ecclesiology has an inverse relation to the dominance of individualism in our culture. As individual waxes, commitment to the church as the body of Christ, a community to which I give allegiance even when it costs me something, wanes.
3. Bobbitt says it has been normal to see the state as a sort of person, a corporate body. That is, this is how things have been in the (now passing) era of the nation state. One of the things that is an impetus to the rise of the market state is the rise of individualism. The rationale of the nation state is to maximize the welfare of citizens. The rationale of the market state is to maximize the opportunities of citizens.
4. One reason the market state is on the rise is that we individualists don't want corporate personhood, whether it be in the state or the church.
5. The market seems to me to be a powerful tool. At the same time, if it is the only tool we have, we're in trouble. The market is fundamentally amoral, just the concatenation of multiple choosings and willings.
If all this is accurate, then the challenge is: how do we avoid nihilism?
I have been involved in discussions on this blog over the issue of campaign finance reform and free speech. While I have taken the unpopular position that free speech should truly be free whether "spoken" by individuals or groups, I have refrained from going into the matter of what actually constitutes a person in relationship to individuals or groups. The reason is that I think modern presumptions often make that debate unintelligible. Modern construals of personhood are nonsensical when one puts the emotivist individual at the center of moral reflection. Once that happens, what individual personhood means is under the sole discretion of the individual except in cases where that person is unable to communicate her or his personhood (e.g. the unborn and persons in a persistent vegetative state). Thus debates over who or what is a person become arguments over power-- individuals that assert their rights because of their "personhood" only by virtue of the fact that they can speak and assert that right, while those unable to do so are left at the mercy of having their personhood evaluated by those corporate persons, whether constituted in the form of a medical ethics committee or legislators or other special interest groups.
What gets left out of the discussion of personhood is an account of what it means to be human. In a long-ago written essay on this subject, Stanley Hauerwas noted that when Uncle Charlie is no longer a person he remains someone's Uncle Charlie. The great irony is that while the idea of common humanity appears important to some who argue for the notion of the common good, such humanity loses its significance when speaking of individuals in contexts where they cannot speak for themselves. Personhood only has individual significance while humanity is only important when speaking of corporate actions.
The problem for Christians is that very little of this modern debate is Christologically and ecclesiologically informed; and because of this Christians have entered into it with little that is fresh and insightful. We have assumed that the debate, as it is currently framed, works. The reason for this is what Richard notes in his post, "The modern age has seen a loss of ecclesiological substance." What I would say, with a little bit of different emphasis, is that the Body of Christ does not reflect ideal personhood (and I have no idea how that would look), but rather it should reflect God's ideal for humanity.
Thus, the loss of ecclesiological substance is Christological as well in that if the Church is the Body of Christ, it is Christology that reveals what it means for us to become collectively human. Thus, for Christians, it is the concept of humanity that should be at the center of these discussions, not a modern notion of personhood that is, frankly, more trouble than it is worth.
Without an understanding of humanity that is Christologically centered and ecclesiologically oriented, all we are left with is a situation where the people who get their rights as persons are the ones who can shout the loudest, while those unable to speak for themselves will be the vulnerable victims of the those who can decide their status for them because personhood trumps humanity.