Perhaps someone can help me in framing either my logic or my language here, please? Proposition A: It seems to me that a corporation has no tangible, physical existence: it only exists as an abstract entity because of common agreement. You can point to assets owned by a corporation, or people employed by a corporation, but you cannot point to anything in the world of things and say "that is a corporation." it is totally intangible. Proposition B: a tax ultimately is a claim on something tangible. Originally, men with spears came and took your grain or your goats. Later, men with guns and badges come and take your possessions. Conclusion: it is impossible for a corporation to "pay" a tax: the corporation merely serves as a tax collector, while other people (suppliers, customers, employees, shareholders) actually pay the tax (in the sense of having fewer tangible things in their possession than otherwise). The sales tax is an example: the customer pays part of the tax at the cash register, employees and shareholders pay part of the tax by devoting payroll time to filling out forms and remitting the money when they could be doing other things if the tax did not exist. It seems eminently logical and reasonable to me; however the way I frame it or phrase it seems lacking in some respect. Is this reasoning logically valid? how might I tighten it up? Thanks very much.

I suggest to you that corporations (as well as nations, colleges, etc) do exists, though they do so in the realm of law and markets in which they can be objects of praise and blame. They do not have "tangible physical existence" in the sense that they are like rocks and rivers, but then lots of things may be said to exist that lack such a status (languages, ideas, feelings). I do share the intuition that may fuel your skepticism, however, and that is that corporations derive their existence from individual human beings, our agreements and practices of recognition, restraint, and respect. One reason for thinking they exist as objects that there are truths about corporations that are not true of the individuals that make them up. My college (St. Olaf College), for example, was established in the 1870s and is in multiple places in the world at the same time (we have students studying around the globe) but no one of us was established in the 1870s or can be entirely in more than one place at once. Perhaps the bad news is that corporations can and do pay taxes, etc, but this is good news too for those of us who value human collaboration toward sharing wealth and responsibility for the common good.

There are, though, different levels of value and accountability when it comes to corporations versus individual persons. I suggest, for example, that among individual persons liberty is a basic good, whereas I suggest that among corporations liberty is not a basic good, but its goodness should be measured in terms of benefits and costs. This is a complex matter I am working on with two sections of environmental ethics at St. Olaf this spring. Will get back to you once we have figured it out!

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