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This article offers a novel analysis of the field of corporate governance by viewing it through the lens of behavioral ethics. It calls for both shifting the focus of corporate governance to a new set of loci of potential corporate wrongdoing and adding new tools to the corporate governance arsenal. The behavioral ethics scholarship emphasizes the large share of wrongdoing generated by "good people" whose intention is to act ethically. Their wrongdoing stems from "bounded ethicality" -- various cognitive and motivational processes that lead to biased decisions that seem legitimate. In the legal domain, corporate law provides the most fertile ground for the application of behavioral ethics since it encapsulates many of the features that the behavioral ethics literature found to confound the ethical judgment of good people, such as agency, group decisions, victim remoteness, vague directives and subtle conflict of interests.

Bounded ethicality suggests a view of corporate law that is dramatically different than that portrayed by traditional legal and economic theorists. Not only does it suggest that wrongdoing can be committed by well-intentioned people who wish to do right, but also that the biases they display call for a radically different set of legal interventions than those advocated by standard economic theory. If standard theorizing views corporate agents as self-interest maximizers, bounded rationality perceives them as actors with varied and nuanced motivations that could benefit from subtle legal reforms.

This Article's assessment of corporate governance through the behavioral ethical lens proceeds in three stages. First, it exposes potential wrongdoing by good people that conventional corporate governance does not address. Second, it suggests novel corporate governance interventions supported by behavioral ethics to address wrongdoing by good people. Third, it identifies existing interventions that according to behavioral ethics analysis may generate unintended adverse effects on the behavior of well-meaning corporate officers and exacerbate wrongdoing instead of mitigating it. As we will show bounded ethicality has important implications for a wide range of topics in corporate governance, such as board structure, independent directors, regulation of institutional investors and proxy advisory firms, the business judgment rule, and corporate and intra-board liability.


corporate governance, behavioral ethics, behavioral economics, business judgment rule, self-concept maintenance, omission bias, independent directors, institutional investors

Publication Citation

115 Northwestern U.L. Rev. 1125 (2021).