The persistent issue of corporate punishment has been the proverbial thorn in the side of many people throughout history. Corporations have caused many people huge amounts of both physical and emotional pain due to instances of improper mechanical maintenance, ignorance towards the environment, and the manufacture of life threatening products. The main problem that lies as an obstacle in front of prosecutors of these corporations is, who do they punish? The Lord Chancellor of England questioned, “Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?” Countless victims throughout history have been perplexed to come up with a solution to answer the Chancellor’s question. How can people throw a corporation in jail, or have them compensate for their immeasurable losses? In his work The Hester Prynne Sanction, Peter French analyses ways in which the courts can change how they punish corporations more effectively. This essay will take a critical look at French’s solution, examining if it is an effective and morally justified fashion of punishing corporations.
In our society, retributive ideals have been implanted in us, as the famous biblical “eye for an eye” concept seems to be society’s manner with which we punish criminals. This is an interesting case though, because corporations don’t simply have one individual they can place the blame upon. Rather, they are comprised of hundreds or even thousands of people, and therefore there is no extensive punishment prosecutors can place upon everybody who is employed by a corporation. In a famous case in Indiana involving Ford Pinto whose “cost benefit analysis regarding the redesign of the gas tank on the Pinto” cost a person his life. The firm ended up paying $200,000, but how can you place a price on human life? And furthermore, who can you go after for retribution? The engineer who drew up the plans? The CEO who approved the change? Or even the Factory worker who placed the new tank in the car? None of them, according to the current laws, writes French. “ The idea that a corporation can pay a court fine or a set sum to the relatives of its’ victim in a homicide case, and therefore expiate its guilt is, however, regarded by many people as a shocking affront to justice.” Very few of these cases can be directly linked to individual negligence or intentional recklessness, and the fines can easily be written off as business expenses. The corporations usually recover fines quickly by means of higher prices. This poses a major problem for society, because the fines imposed on corporations are not even regarded, “ in the corporate world as punishment comparable to human incarceration.” Therefore people want to gain control of the “most powerful institutions in our community” and more importantly gain the justice that they rightly deserve. This justice comes in the form of Peter French’s Hester Prynne Sanction.
French’s Hester Prynne Sanction is an “alternative type of punishment” , and is a well thought out and researched proposal. The solution takes a psychological approach to the problem. French notes that our legal system is “guilt based, and guilt is an economic notion” , and that guilt has been looked at as a debt to a victim or to a society in general. The way to repay this debt is by punishment, which consequently acts as a means to repay and restore society’s equilibrium. Therefore, if a corporation is guilty of pollution they simply repay society by donating money to a group who will “clean up” the astronomical mess they made, and in turn, the damage they caused will be repaid. French believes we, as a society, should abandon this outlook and switch to a shame based attitude when it comes to justice involved in the corporate law system, because the feeling of shame makes one feel inadequate or inferior. With this system, if a corporation was involved in a situation that was discordant with the law and trust had been shattered, the courts could induce shame as a means of punishment.. This shame would enlighten the media to the wrongdoing, who would in turn enlighten both the corporation of their mistakes, as well as the public