Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

What goes with what?

Posted May 14, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 12 Comments

Some words belong together, and some do not.  Most of us would not have any problem, for example, with the idea of a “church party,” but some might.  Kenneth Burke called our notions of what-goes-to-what our piety.  He believed that we are all pious to the degree that some paring of terms irritates us and some do not.

Just because something irritates us does not make it wrong.  Irritation is more of a clue to reflect than to stay with our initial judgments.  This actually works both ways.  Sometimes we have become so comfortable with the paring of different words that we fail to see that they don’t really fit together.  Then we need someone to irritate us.  One paring that seems to be on the way from irritation to a fairly comfortable notion is the idea of a corporate citizen.  Ok, I have to confess, I still find the joining of “corporate” and “citizen” somewhat irritating.

One way to explore whether something should go with something else is to think of similar word pares that illicit a quite different response.  For example, if you are more or less comfortable with a “corporate citizen,” how about a “church citizen” (I use church here for any religious organization).  This seems rather odd, doesn’t it?

Why do many of us find the idea of a corporate citizen rather normal, but a church citizen irritating?  Both corporations and churches are organizations.  They both have decision-making structures that allow us to see “their” decisions as organizational decisions.  This means that they can be held accountable for their decisions.  So it would seem that they have a lot in common.

They also are similar in what they are not.  Both are not human citizens.  As organizations, they do not have primary needs, such as food or shelter, nor do they get sick or suffer.  They are not living beings.

Also, they do not have the right to vote or to run for office.  Apple will never occupy the White House.  Neither will the United Methodist church.   At the same time, they both can lobby representatives to vote in line with their interests and beliefs.

Maybe a church citizen sounds so weird because churches are not seen as belonging to the political arena.  Remember the doctrine of the separation of church and state?  Shouldn’t that make it clear that the idea of a church citizen should seem odd?

Do corporations belong to the state in a way that churches do not?  Like churches, they are “private” institutions, not “public institutions.  Maybe there should be a new doctrine of the separation of corporations and state?  Unless we find some principle that gives corporations a license to be citizens, that churches do not have, then why not treat corporations like we treat churches instead of like we treat citizens?

12 Responses to “What goes with what?”

  1. Mark says:

    May 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Provocative thoughts! What about "global citizen"? That usually means "citizen of the globe," not the globe as a citizen. And "church citizen" could make sense if it means "citizen of a church," but less so, as you say, if it means the church as a citizen. Similarly, "corporate citizen" makes more sense if it means "citizen of a corporation," in the sense of an employee with civic rights and duties, rather than corporations themselves as citizens. I'm not so enthusiastic about a "separation of corporation and state," if only because it easily sounds like a libertarian argument against government regulation. Because property rights under capitalism allow the accumulation of enormous power, they usually require more government oversight than religious rights.
  2. Marvin Brown says:

    May 15, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Good points. Maybe we should think of a civic corporation instead of a corporate citizen. That would mean that the corporation belongs to the civic realm, where it must comply with civic obligations. If a corporation is a civic organization, then its role in a civil economy would be determined by civic conversations among citizens.
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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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