University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law

First Page


Publication Date


Document Type



The debate around the public purpose of the corporation is not a new one. But it has flared up again recently due to widespread critique of deepening socio-economic inequality, corporate inequities regarding gender and race and the seeming inability of governments and businesses alike to adequately address the catastrophic impact of climate change. As the corporation holds a firmly established place in the universe of economic and financial affairs, it – like the markets in which it operates – is is typically depicted as a private affair. Any regulation of the corporation, thus, tends to be critiqued as an unjustified intervention into an economic sphere that should better be left to its own devices. This paper interrogates these claims against the historic evidence of corporate law’ and corporate theory’s trajectories throughout the twentieth century into the present. What this account teaches us is that the designation of ‘corporate purpose’ and our relation to it comes down to political choices. The reputational crisis of the corporation, then, is an opportunity for democratic deliberation and engagement.