Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Corporations and Chimpanzees

Posted Apr 27, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

As you know the majority of judges sitting on the US Supreme Court have granted the rights of persons to corporations. I wonder if they will soon grant similar rights to chimpanzees and other highly cognizant primates. Charles Siebert’s article in the New York Times Magazine (April 27) provides us with some resources to think about this question.

Siebert’s article focuses on the work of Stephen Wise. Wise has worked with animal rights groups, such as the Nonhuman Rights Project, to have courts recognize highly cognizant primates as “autonomous beings.” Such a status could mean that they should be treated as legal persons—persons with the right to sue their owners for illegal confinement.

“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”

So far, courts have not granted chimps the legal status of persons with rights, and maybe they will not, but one wonders why it has been so easy for the courts to grant such status to corporations, especially when you consider that these judges themselves are much more like chimpanzees than corporations.

Wise’s intention to establish legal personhood for chimps is to give them the right of Habeas Corpus: the right to bring before the courts a claim of false imprisonment. Legal persons, in other words, have the right, and therefore the capacity, to claim false imprisonment. But do corporations have this right. Can you imagine a corporation suing its owners for its freedom? Do corporations even come close to the status of “autonomous beings”?

So what are some of the similarities and differences between corporations and chimpanzees? They have different origins. Corporations are legal creations. Chimps are natural beings. Both are treated as properties that one can buy and sell, but they are not the same kind of properties. Corporations do not have any of the characteristics of higher primates.   Corporations can be understood as constructions of verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication (see my book Corporate Integrity, 2005). Chimpanzees are fundamentally relational animals, like humans, and live in relationships of trust and fear, of joy and anger. Corporations are also constituted by human relations; relationships that have the capacity of promoting trust or fear.

One more significant difference is that corporations are legitimate in terms of their usefulness or benefits. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are living beings, part of the animal world–on the planet before we were. Instead of invaders of their homeland, we could have been their guests. For us to allow corporations to destroy the planet and to put chimpanzees in prison might be a good indication of how far we are from where we should be.



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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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