Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Corporations, Persons and Composition

For this post I plan to move away from the video clips of prior posts and focus on a particular line of argumentation that one finds whenever questions of political campaigns and money come into play. This current election cycle (2012) looks to be the first billion dollar election in US history with each campaign (Obama and Romney) likely to spend over $1 billion in an attempt to become or remain president of the USA. This issue is closely tied to a recent Supreme Court Decision, generally referred to as Citizens United. At stake in this case (among other things) was what rights (particularly free speech rights) corporations have. I don't want to get into the details of the case, but instead focus on some of the comments and justifications of the Supreme Court's decision.

On major line of justification that one can find, for example at the Libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute, suggests that corporations should have rights because they are made up of people with rights. As Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute puts it, "corporations don’t have constitutional rights because they’re corporations, but because they’re made up of individuals, who don’t lose their rights when they associate (in corporate form or otherwise)." The line of thinking appears to be that because individuals have rights, and because a corporation is just a collection of individuals, that collection should possess rights possessed by the individuals who make up that collection. This is, in fact, a nice illustration of the Fallacy of Composition.

The Fallacy of Composition is one of the oldest fallacies known, having been identified by Aristotle in his Sophistical Refutations (I don't suggest reading this text for help understanding these fallacies unless you are fluent in ancient Greek. As the translator notes, verbal fallacies, like puns, don't translate well). In this fallacy, one draws a conclusion about a whole based on attributes of the parts. The key here is that one starts with a claim about parts, and then draws a conclusion about the whole. A classic example would be, "Each part of this machine is inexpensive, therefore the whole machine is inexpensive." The fallacious reasoning here should be clear in that one could have a machine made up of one million parts, each of which costs $1, which, when put together would obviously cost more than $1 Million.  The same fallacy also occurs in the context of groups such as when one draws a conclusion about a group based on the attributes of the members of that group. For example, "Every ship in the fleet is ready for battle, therefore the whole fleet is ready for battle." 

Returning to the example from Shapiro above, we can see the same sort of fallacious reasoning at work. When he argues that corporations should have free speech rights because the members of that corporation have free speech rights he is committing the fallacy of composition by starting with a claim about the members of a group (the corporation) and then inferring a conclusion about the whole group. Again, the fact that the individuals in the group have a certain right to free speech does not imply that the group as a whole should have the same right.

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