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Response to Geis
on Anti-Corporate Polemics

Dennis R. Fox


Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 16, 273-279.

In 1996 Behavioral Sciences and the Law published my article The Law Says Corporations are Persons, but Psychology Knows Better.

Gilbert Geis wrote a critique that raises a number of useful points about the substance of my article, accompanied by explicit, blunt criticism of my alleged failure to meet social scientific norms. One reviewer urged me to match Geis's "theatrics" and "harsh" and "contemptuous" tone in my response, but the editor wouldn't even let me say I was rejecting the reviewer's advice...

This is my response.

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!


This article responds to Geis's (1998) critique of Fox's (1996) article "The Law Says Corporations are Persons, but Psychology Knows Better." It clarifies points of disagreement, emphasizes the importance of placing in broader context the debate over the corporate legal form's benefits and drawbacks, calls for fundamental change in the sociopolitical status quo so as to better meet human needs and values, and defends advocacy of such changes by psychologists. It suggests, contrary to Geis's view, that the possibility of false consciousness about corporate society and other components of the status quo should be investigated rather than dismissed out of hand.


I was glad to see Gilbert Geis's (1998) critique of my article "The Law Says Corporations are Persons, but Psychology Knows Better" (Fox, 1996). Perhaps because I "may be an admirable polemicist" (Geis, 1998), I welcome this chance to address issues of style and substance. Rather than respond to every one of Geis's comments, many of which share common threads and stem from common objections, I aim to touch on basic differences. We will continue to disagree. But I hope this exchange illuminates the general territory, clarifies specific points I made earlier, and inspires readers to investigate the issues.

Even though Geis emphasizes he is most concerned with the "manner in which [my] argument is presented as measured against the requirements of satisfactory social scientific discourse", his objections go beyond presentation style. We have significantly different substantive perspectives on the past, present, and future of the corporate form and its possible alternatives. Even though Geis and I share a "distaste for large corporations" (Geis, 1998) and a "wariness . . . about the moral legitimacy of what is going on behind corporate curtains",, his distaste and wariness are more mitigated than mine by the corporation's supposed benefits. Although Geis says I go too far in suggesting "eliminating the corporate form entirely" (Fox, 1996, p. 355), I would go much further than that. The corporation is a big target, but it is only part of the damaging sociopolitical landscape that psychologists should seek to alter.

For Geis, benefits such as "efficiencies of scale" ( and the ability to do "reasonable things" such as make contracts, own property, and be held liable for crimes justify the continuation of corporate existence and shareholder immunity from liability, even though corporate power and large size should be modified by a variety of reasonable and responsible incremental reforms. Geis's primary concern appears to be corporate crime, a serious problem to which he has devoted useful attention for many years. He notes that "the lifestyle of Americans is very much the envy of most of the rest of the world, and corporations have contributed significantly to this situation". We are not likely to get rid of the centuries-old corporate form even if we wanted to, according to Geis, and apparently most people don't. What's more, critics like me who claim that public support for corporate capitalism may stem from false consciousness are "patronizing" because we "derogate the ideas of anyone who differs from us on any subject".

I see things a bit differently. As I noted in my article, because the alleged benefits of corporate society either are not benefits at all or pale in comparison to the drawbacks, and because my concerns extend well beyond corporate crime, incremental reform cannot be sufficient. Economies of scale, capitalist accumulation, and modern lifestyles have led to a host of personal and global problems that cannot be swept aside on the grounds that people like things the way they are (Fox, 1985). Rather than calling for a return to Hobbesian-era economics, as Geis incorrectly suggests I advocate, I actually proposed that "psychologists should determine the degree to which an egalitarian, democratic, and humane economic and social system would lessen these destructive values" (Fox, 1996, p. 355). Such an egalitarian system requires more than merely ending shareholder immunity and other components of the corporate legal form. It requires instead the fundamental societal restructuring that I believe would follow from "examin[ing] and attempt[ing] to alter society's dominant ideology--the complex of values such as competition, consumption, profit orientation, obedience to authority, individualism without social responsibility, and acceptance of a legal, political, and economic system that fails to seek justice" (p. 355). (Geis's presumption that I meant "excessive" consumption rather than consumption is incorrect. A consumption-based lifestyle causes problem regardless of how much of that consumption is "excess.")

Geis claims that "if he [Fox] is to maintain credibly that this kind of activity will improve human well-being, he is going to have to define that well-being with much greater clarity". The literature I cited provides abundant evidence in psychology and elsewhere to justify my central empirical and normative claims: Modern society fails to meet human needs and values; and radical social change rather than incremental regulatory reform is required to end oppression and injustice, save the environment, and enable more people to live meaningful lives in work, family, and community settings that foster rather than inhibit mental well-being. Rather than repeat material readily available elsewhere, I cited as examples two dozen psychologists who have "departed from the mainstream to advocate widespread social change" (p. 340). Such departures continue as critical psychologists making a variety of empirical and normative arguments assess the field's contribution to an unjust status quo (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997).

In any event, I don't think it useful to itemize in advance specific details of the needed societal restructuring; a variety of conflicting approaches might all turn out to be better than the status quo. We cannot decide now the outcome of a struggle whose participants must determine the direction. But just as injustice can be recognized even when justice itself is hard to define (Simon (1995), we can acknowledge that a problem exists, begin to identify its sources, and proceed to devise and advocate alternatives even in the absence of preconceived certainty about which of those alternatives will turn out to be best.

Of course, despite uncertainty, we can speculate. In my view, psychologists have a moral obligation to consider the degree to which the status quo and its alternatives help or hinder values such as social justice, self-determination and participation, caring and compassion, health, and human diversity (Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997). This consideration can be guided by the varied literatures I cited in the first article and elsewhere (Fox, 1985, 1993a, 1993b, 1997a, 1997b), literatures ranging from environmentalism, economic justice, ethics, and legitimacy theory to anarchism, Marxism, feminism, and utopianism. Geis may share a common mainstream impatience with some of these literatures, but such impatience overlooks their usefulness for raising hypotheses about human behavior and human needs and directing attention to possible improvements.

For good reason, critical psychologists have paid particular attention to capitalism's "social-Darwinian ideology and institutional practices" (Lerner, 1982, p. 271) that foster inaccurate assumptions about an essentially selfish and competitive human nature (Albee, 1986; Chomsky, 1973; Cohen, 1987; Deutsch, 1985; Ehrlich, 1996; Fox, 1985, 1993a, 1996, 1997a, 1997b; Fromm, 1955; Goodman, 1966/1979; Kohn, 1986, 1990; Lerner, 1982; Maslow, 1971; Prilleltensky, 1994; 1997; Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997; Sampson, 1983; Sarason, 1976; Wachtel, 1983; Wexler, 1983). Geis ignores this literature but rejects my view that "data support the conclusion that large, profit-oriented, hierarchical organizations are not conducive to human welfare" (Fox, 1996, p. 349); he proclaims instead:

Obviously, the data support no such conclusion. They may support the idea that wrongdoing is more apt to occur under such conditions (and even this is empirically arguable), but wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise, while it is not likely to advance human welfare, is but one product of the kinds of arrangements depicted. We ought to have at least some consideration of the consequences of a nation of small, non-profit oriented, non-hierarchical organizations as this situation might relate to human welfare, reasonably defined. (Geis, 1998)

Geis apparently disagrees with those such as Deutsch (1985) who conclude, based on their review of the data, that "when efficient work requires efficient cooperation, almost any movement toward a democratic, egalitarian, cooperative system and away from the more traditional authoritarian, hierarchical, adversarial system of work improves productivity and lessens worker alienation" (Deutsch, 1985, p. 249). But his focus on the important but relatively narrow issue of corporate "wrongdoing" deflects Geis's attention from my broader concern with issues such as alienation, need fulfillment, and the advancement of both individual autonomy and a psychological sense of community (Fox, 1985). These issues--not legally defined crime or even more common "crimes of obedience" (Kelman & Hamilton, 1989)--go to the heart of critiques ranging from Bakan's (1966) call for redressing the societal imbalance between agency and communion to Prilleltensky's (1997) call for an "emancipatory communitarianism."

Similarly, Geis dismisses my criticism of shareholder immunity from liability because ending that immunity "would work against the generally acknowledged self-protective doctrine that persons should diversify their holdings". He prefers Gabaldon's (1992) "far more sensible" approach which seeks merely "incremental" reform. This focus on Gabaldon's cautious conclusion rather than her sharply critical analysis reveals Geis's failure to consider that life could be much better in a significantly different form of society. As I see it, determining whether corporate-dominated society would be better or worse without shareholder immunity is less important than ending corporate society; whether or not people's holdings should be diversified becomes a meaningless question in a society without corporate investment. Such an outcome may only be possible, as Geis says, with "worldwide adoption of unlimited liability." But the prospect of worldwide socioeconomic change, though "unrealistic" given mainstream assumptions, is exactly what the evidence in psychology calls for.

Calls for worldwide change are not unusual, as noted in my article. Since then, David Korten's (1995) far-reaching agenda for ending corporate power and political rights has received positive attention from a wide range of anti-corporate critics. Korten's response to objections that his proposals "will significantly interfere with the operations of transnational corporations and financial markets" parallels mine here: "That, of course, is precisely their intent" (p. 324). Although his overall "pro-business and pro-market" principles are not the ones I would choose, Korten's general approach -- stemming from his background in Third World development - -is instructive as well as ripe with psychological hypotheses worth investigating:

There are few rights more fundamental than the right of people to create caring, sustainable communities and to control their own resources, economies, and means of livelihood. These rights in turn depend on their right to choose what cultural values they will embrace, what values their children will be taught, and with whom they will trade. A globalized economy denies these rights by transferring the power to make the relevant choices to global corporations and financial institutions. Economic globalization is in the corporate interest. It is not in the human interest. Who holds the power to decide is a pivotal issue in the Ecological Revolution.

The guiding principles of the Ecological Revolution are actively pro-business and pro-market, but they favor local over global businesses and markets. They recognize the importance of local businesses that provide employment to local people, pay local taxes to maintain local infrastructure and social services, meet local social and environmental standards, participate in the community, and compete fairly with similar businesses in markets that have no dominant players. If a global corporation wishes to make the case that it can offer local people what local enterprise cannot, it should be up to local people to judge the substance of its arguments. If defending democracy, human values, and livelihoods is protectionism, then let us all proudly proclaim ourselves to be protectionists. (pp. 307-308)

Given Geis's dismissal of my reference to false consciousness as a factor in popular support for the status quo as patronizing, he might claim that "the people" of concern to Korten have already spoken and that their support for a global corporate economy is clear. Any such claim, though, must be examined carefully. Certainly use of the term false consciousness can be abused. Yet psychologists in a variety of subdisciplines often find that people believe things that are not in their own best interest; many have used the false consciousness term in this context (Jost, 1995; Tyler, 1994; Tyler & McGraw, 1986) as well as equivalents such as "fabrications of justice" (Cohen, 1989). In his review of related social psychological phenomena, John Jost (1995) defined false consciousness as "the holding of false or inaccurate beliefs that are contrary to one's own social interest and which thereby contribute to the maintenance of the disadvantaged position of the self or the group" (Jost, 1995, p. 400). He noted types of false consciousness often examined by psychologists even when they do not use the terminology: the failure to perceive justice and disadvantage ("people frequently perceive situations to be fair or just, even when there are good reasons to suppose that such situations are not"--p. 402); fatalism (including the beliefs that protest is futile, embarrassing, or exhausting); the justification of social roles (person perception and stereotyping); false attribution of blame (self-blame and false other blame); identification with the aggressor (psychological dependence and preference for the outgroup); and resistance to change (cognitive and behavioral conservatism). Noting that psychologists commonly try to help individuals eliminate erroneous, unhealthy beliefs in order to develop more successful methods of functioning, Jost added: "There is no a priori reason why psychology should aim to be any less useful to social and political life than to other areas of human existence" (p. 417).

In my view, thus, raising the possibility that our socializing institutions dispense myths about societal functioning and human nature in order to maintain the status quo is hardly patronizing. It is instead a possibility that should be investigated by psychologists, including psycholegal scholars who examine legal socialization and the subjective experience of law (Melton, 1988). Mainstream justice research that focuses on perceived satisfaction with societal distribution norms may "merely reflect the consequences of one way of organizing society" (Bell & Schokkaert, 1992, p. 248).

Geis's preference for maintaining corporate benefits and my judgment that the drawbacks outweigh those benefits are both subjective. Weighing of costs and benefits is always subjective regardless of how much data each side throws into the mix. I continue to believe that "strong political advocacy by psychologists is consistent with psychological knowledge and ethics" and that "psychology's traditional focus on narrower empirical questions largely uncritical of the status quo" is a mistake (Fox, 1996, p. 340). Eradicating politics from psychological inquiry and discourse is impossible as well as undesirable (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1996; Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997). Spelling out the political sources and consequences of our stands and presenting a blend of the empirical and the normative may violate restrictive social science norms. But this blend holds the best chance for bringing about the kind of social change to which social scientists can contribute. I agree that "even the most elegant research often has to take a back seat when the matter involved is not factual but a question of balancing different goals and values" (Geis, 1998; see Fox, 1991, for the same argument). For this reason I have urged other psychologists of law to return to the field's earlier concerns with social justice (Fox, 1993b, 1997b). Such a return would require greater attention to the issues debated here.


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