Is there such a thing as corporate action?

In one of the lectures today, the speaker argued that there is not such thing as corporate action. An “act” is something that can only be done by individual actors. So, when we say something like “The people elected Obama,” we actually mean “A large number of individual actors chose to vote for Obama.” The former phrase is merely a metaphorical way of speaking because corporate entities like “the people” don’t “act” in any meaningful sense.

What do you think? Is a statement like “Israel sinned” merely a metaphorical way of saying “A bunch of Israelites sinned.” Or, can we legitimately talk about the action of corporate entities?

On a side note, there was a fascinating rhetorical shift in the latter part of the lecture. Despite this critique of corporate action, the lecturer routinely referred to the action of “the market.” He apparently thinks very highly of “the market” and its ability to respond to issues of supply/demand, distribution, and access among other things. Oddly, he didn’t seem to notice that he was attributing significant action to a corporate entity. And, this is a place where I thought more of an emphasis on individual actors, along with their limited knowledge and sinful tendencies, could have contributed to a more realistic and less optimistic view of market forces.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 17, 2010, in Anthropology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. How would this guy describe a soccer game? “Eleven individuals each accomplished their respective tasks on the pitch, and earned a mutually beneficial result that profited them all.” Or could he say “Germany won”?

    Are any of the Catholics their uncomfortable with this kind of nominalism?:-)


    • He’d probably be willing to say “Germany won”, but only as metaphorical short-hand for a more complicated, though more accurate, statement. It sounded to me a lot like reductive materialists who contends that higher-level realities like minds and persons do not “really” exist (i.e. they are really just the complex products of lower-levels physical realities). We can continue to use labels like “mind” and “person”, but only because it takes too long to describe these things in the language of physics and chemistry alone.

      Good question! I should definitely ask.

  2. Groups or corporate entities then are nothing more than the epiphenomena of individual actors and their actions? That sounds like a strategy of evasion, more than an argument.

    I know that one of the end games in libertarian thought is “personal responsibility,” like an existentialism with money on the table (literally). But I can’t shake the feeling that their view of the person is radically deficient. If being human boils down choices, i.e. will, that leaves gaping lacunae in your anthropology (much as it does your theology if that is what you boil God down to as well, cf. “Allah”). Why not work “love” into your primary definition of the person? To do so would entail a) being Trinitarian, and b) having to explain the individual as insufficient without other people (since you can’t love without a lover).

    I guess I’m a hippy Calvinist…

  3. Marc:
    I thought it sounded exactly as you said: reductive materialists. I just couldn’t figure out how to write it so I scrapped my comment.

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