The corporation is not a psychopath

Like most simple diagnoses of the ethical problems in the world of commerce, this one is dead wrong.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

Readers may already be familiar with the 2003 documentary The Corporation. The film has many flaws; I can’t show it to my students without pausing frequently to correct misleading assertions and half-truths. But the key problem with the film lies in its attempt to arrive at a single, simple diagnosis for the many problems we see in the corporate world. The central conceit of the film is that the corporation fits the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy—that corporations, quite generally, act in destructive ways that demonstrate an utter lack of empathy or remorse. The problem is, the claim is utter bunk, and completely unsupported by what the film shows to viewers. But it’s also an idea that has struck a chord with a lot of people, seemingly summing up their darkest fears about corporations.

Part of the problem is the film is sloppy with language and it starts with the title itself. The filmmakers clearly intend to refer to ‘the corporation’ in the abstract, corporations as a group, the very idea of them. It’s not referring to any particular corporation—like, that one over there. But in building its case, it cites diverse behaviours by various particular companies, and uses those to check off, one by one, the diagnostic criteria that psychologists associate with psychopathy in humans.

Here’s the list of diagnostic criteria the film uses:
1) callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
2) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships;
3) recklessness with others’ health & safety;
4) deceitfulness;
5) inability to feel guilt;
6) failure to follow social norms.

The problem is that in order to use this list as a diagnostic tool, you need to apply it to a single ‘patient.’ But the film doesn’t do that, not ever; instead, it cherry-picks examples of heinous behaviour from across dozens of corporations over dozens of decades. It finds an example of Callous Unconcern on the part of one company, Recklessness on the part of another, and Deceitfulness on the part of others still. And so on.

The result is a kind of sleight of hand, and not very subtle sleight of hand at that. You can do the same trick with any ‘patient,’ of course, when your ‘patient’ is an entire category. If you cherry-pick examples from across many many particular cases, you can easily arrive at a diagnosis of psychopathy not just for The Corporation, but also for The Government, The University, The Church, The Union, The Charity, The Newspaper, or even—*shudder* —The Highschool Volleyball Team.

Now it is crucial to note that by pointing out this flaw in the doc’s argument, I’m not defending any of the companies that it mentions. Many of those companies have done terrible things, including things that are outright criminal. The point is the film fails in its attempt to prove the corporation as a whole is a “psychopath,” or anything like it. And the result is much more than a documentary that fails to make its point. The result is a distraction, as viewers duped by the film are told to write off the very notion of profit-seeking corporations, a prescription that ignores the enormous amount of human wellbeing that has resulted directly from the activities of corporations, and also diverts attention from a more focused critique of the very real flaws that exist in the way particular corporations are governed and regulated.

One comment on “The corporation is not a psychopath

  1. Pingback: The Corporation Assignment | GEOM 4 ME

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