Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 154, Issue 4, pp 967–974 | Cite as

Decomposing Legal Personhood

  • Jon GarthoffEmail author
Original Paper


The claim that corporations are not people is perhaps the most frequently voiced criticism of the United States Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. There is something obviously correct about this claim. While the nature and extent of obligations with respect to group agents like corporations and labor unions is far from clear, it is manifest in moral understanding and deeply embedded in legal practice that there is no general requirement to treat them like natural persons. Group agents may be denied rights to marry, vote, or run for public office. More generally the need to guard against discrimination, the core injustice in racism and sexism, has no direct application to the case of group agents. There is also something obviously incorrect about the claim that corporations are not people. The legal practice of treating some group agents as persons under law is ancient, found already in Roman law at the time of Justinian. In this essay I propose that reflection on this tension reveals that fundamental revision to the doctrine of legal personhood is needed. More specifically I propose that legal personhood be decomposed into at least two elements—standing and liability—and that legal systems reject the principle that an entity possesses one just in case it possesses the other. The import of this change ramifies broadly. Decomposing legal personhood not only enables a satisfactory account of the status of corporations and labor unions, who as such have liability but not standing, it also enables a satisfactory account of the status of those who as such have standing but not liability: severely mentally disabled persons, very young children (including fetuses), and non-human animals with phenomenal consciousness but lacking capacities to understand reasons and justifications.


Animal personhood Citizens United Corporate personhood Legal personality Liability Standing 



I would like to thank Brad Cokelet, Jake Earl, Georgi Gardiner, Amanda Greene, Yannig Luthra, Jonathan Peterson, and David Reidy for instructive discussion of an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank audiences at Loyola University in New Orleans and at an Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association for their helpful comments and questions.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

I declare that I have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human and Animal Participants

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals that were performed by the author.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA

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