Michelle Teheux: Of human beings, corporations and robots
Let’s have a conversation about humans and corporations. Later we’ll move onto robots, so hang on for the exciting science fiction portion of today’s column.
Corporations aren’t people. People breathe and bleed. They may fall in love, get married and have babies. They will eventually die. Corporations do none of these things.
What do corporations do? They make money, and they protect the owners of the business from personal liability. If you start a business and you don’t want to risk being sued personally, you can incorporate, and that affords you some protection.
What you are basically saying when you incorporate is that the business is its own entity, not just an extension of you and any co-owners you might have.
A corporation is far different from a sole proprietorship, in which you can pretty accurately identify your business and yourself as supporting various beliefs and causes.
I once owned a sole proprietorship, a small business I started in my spare room as a young mother who didn’t want to part from her babies but needed some income. It was fun, and as long as I didn’t violate any laws I could make any business decision I wanted. I supported various causes, and so did my little business. I had no shareholders to answer to, and when I wanted to sacrifice potential profits for some other aim, such as helping out another young mom by giving her free products, I did so.
Most people (except five of the Supreme Court justices) already understand that corporations do not have any religious beliefs, or any other beliefs. They have no lofty aims.
The sole purpose of a corporation is to make money. No corporation I ever heard of was founded for any other purpose. When people want to establish an entity dedicated to doing good and righting wrongs, they start a non-profit organization.
There are a few real, live, breathing people for whom doing good and righting wrongs is their main goal, and we call them saints.
There are a few real, live, breathing people for whom making money is their main goal, and we call them sociopaths.
Actual human beings have probably a thousand different aims in life. They want to make money, but they also want to do some good in the world. They want to have fun. They want to take care of their loved ones. They might also have an ongoing feud with their neighbors, drink too much, and have a tendency to speed.
We humans are a mix of selfless and selfish, of good and of bad. We have deeply held beliefs, some of them lofty ideals like freedom that make us better and sometimes dark beliefs like racism that diminish us. That’s what human beings are — a sloppy mess — but most of us have more positives than negatives.
If we think the science fiction world has it right, we’ll someday be surrounded by robots who appear human but who are programmed to be a certain way. They won’t have free will of their own, but they’ll be capable of making life for the real humans better or worse, depending on whether they’ve been programmed to help care for our elderly or to shoot those we’ve deemed enemies.
But most of us don’t believe robots will ever have free will. They’ll always act in accordance with how human beings have designed and programmed them to act. Nor will they have emotions or feelings or beliefs. Will you, 100 years from now, be able to claim your robot is Catholic or Jewish or Muslim because you are? The idea seems ridiculous, but perhaps is not so far-fetched.
At least these future robots may look like human beings, perhaps so much that it will be difficult to distinguish them from the real thing.
Corporations, despite the literal meaning of the word, do not have bodies, yet some people still cannot understand that they are not real people.
It is people, not corporations, who matter in this world.
That’s a belief — a very simple human belief — we need to uphold at all times.
Follow Michelle Teheux at Twitter.com/michelleteheux. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.