Kate Jackson talks to Kenan Graduate Fellows
Kate Jackson discussed her work on how to determine what sort of legal rights corporations ought to have with the Kenan Graduate Fellows in Ethics at the bimonthly Monday Seminar. Jackson started her career majoring in engineering at West Point, but transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to study philosophy and economics. Following her undergraduate studies with a law degree, she practiced corporate derivative and securities litigation for the next six years. She had never lost interest in philosophy, but recalled that the turning point in her career came when she was working on a case where a coal mining company’s CEO had violated health and safety regulations for years until an explosion killed a number of miners and the company’s stock dropped. She said the company’s shareholders had ignored the problems and continued reelecting this CEO until the explosion, and her law firm was brought in to represent the directors who were suing to recover some of the money lost because of the company’s drop in value.
At that point, she explained, she quit because she could not in good conscience represent those clients. She matriculated in Columbia’s Ph.D. program in political theory because “political theory cares about institutional design” – but because political theorists have not traditionally paid a great deal of attention to markets, or to the independent power of corporations, she developed a truly interdisciplinary project drawing together economics and business law with the political theory literature.
Jackson’s dissertation, Corporate Autonomy: Law, Constitutional Democracy and Big Business, examined the rights and internal governance of business corporations in constitutional liberal democracies. Standing within the liberal egalitarian tradition, she argued that in constitutional liberal democracies, corporations deserve some autonomy rights if and only if those rights will help vindicate individual human liberty.
Currently, she is a DeOlazarra Fellow at the Program in Political Philosophy, Policy & Law at the University of Virginia, researching how our normative commitments – both legal and political – both intervene in, and are driven by, the economy. As she explained to the graduate fellows, if market constraints are real and can infringe on people’s freedom, “we shouldn’t be ascribing very robust autonomy rights to corporations because we’re not protecting the corporation as its human individuals, we’re protecting the system. And maybe the system may not merit protection; maybe we should change the system.”
Each year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics awards 10 to 15 fellowships to outstanding graduate students at Duke University. Students from any Duke graduate program may apply. What each cohort of Graduate Fellows has in common is that their dissertation research engages in interesting ways with significant normative issues.