Deardorff on Turner, “Corporate Values”

On Friday, October 6th, Henry Turner, Professor of English at Rutgers University, spoke as the second guest of the Seminar on Corporations and International Law. He discussed a portion of his forthcoming paper, The Poetics of the Corporate Person, which is an extension of his most recent book, The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Functions in England, 1516-1651 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  Turner, a specialist in Renaissance literature, is known for his analysis of a variety fields through the lens of his area of expertise; in both his book and paper, Turner explored the modern corporation and its fictional personhood.

Central to Turner’s discussion was the notion of values – specifically, do corporations have their own values, or do they represent values we the consumers assign to them? Turner broached this topic early in his talk with the idea of moral personality versus legal personality, a divide which is perfectly represented by Hobby Lobby. The closely-held corporation, known for the 2014 Supreme Court case determining that it did not have to comply with a Department of Health and Human Services regulation requiring employers to provide their employees with a health insurance plan covering contraceptives, has both moral and legal personalities: the company itself adheres to Christian principles while being formally incorporated in Oklahoma.

Turner then alluded to the idea that corporations provide a stabilizing force that allows people from different groups can interact. Because they are this place of stabilization, corporations are an arena in which competing value systems can circulate and compete, and it is the corporation that adjudicates the competition. With this, Turner noted, comes the potential that all values will be collapsed into one – profit. This is increasingly so a concern in the modern world, where the model corporation is for-profit. This is of concern, Turner stated, because we cannot pursue everything we want to pursue solely by making money.

Turner’s argument has weight in light of recent politics. Luckily, the current generation does not seem to be headed down a path focusing simply on profits. Millennials are becoming increasingly aware of the values their for-profit and non-profit corporate affiliations portray. There are popular movements across the United States calling for corporations to align themselves with certain values and political movements; for example, the Divest Harvard movement, comprised of students of the elite institution of higher learning, sought to force those in control of the University’s $34 billion endowment to divest from fossil fuels and redirect those funds to “socially responsible” causes. On the for-profit side, consumers are increasingly motivated by value and social causes when comparison shopping. We turn to corporations like Patagonia and Toms, who donate a portion of their goods to those in need. We buy furniture made from sustainably grown timber and urge our favorite chains to pay their workers living wage – both of which are symbolic of values antithetical to profit.

Near the end of his discussion, Turner touched on a related topic. He vocalized why it is so important for members of corporations – either their shareholders or those who are affiliated by consumption – to issue statements supporting or condemning important national events: corporations are not just the sum of their members. It’s unclear where these values come from: maybe corporations issue these statements to keep customers, or maybe they do it because they care.

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