Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Religious Conceptions of Corporate Purpose

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Religious Conceptions of Corporate Purpose

Article excerpt

Table of Contents

I. Introduction....813

II. Religion Defined...816

III. The Historical Linkage of Faith and Work.....819

IV. Corporations and Religion.....821

V. The Necessarily Religious Understanding of Corporate Purpose....825

VI. Repercussions.....832

VII. Conclusion........843

I. Introduction

This Essay on religious conceptions of corporate purpose was prepared, in part, to commemorate the incredibly rich corporate law scholarship of Professors Lyman Johnson and David Millon. Consequently, my reflections on this topic will draw heavily and primarily from the work of these two outstanding academicians.

As far back as 1986, in what appears to be his second published piece of scholarship, Lyman Johnson points out the necessity of confronting the issue of "corporate purpose."1 An Aristotelian myself, I heartily subscribe to Professor Johnson's emphasis on purposes, for how else can one assess the goodness of a thing, or of its conduct, without an appreciation of its teleology?2

As the title suggests, this Essay will examine religious conceptions of corporate purpose. More specifically, I shall examine whether a business corporation may, may not, or must have a religious purpose-as these three perspectives exhaust the various possibilities. In other words: might a business corporation adopt a religious purpose at its own discretion? Or, are all business corporations precluded from adopting a religious purpose by their very nature? Or, finally, might it be the case that business corporations invariably have a religious purpose, regardless of whether this is explicitly recognized or not (by either the corporation itself or the public at large)?

I will advance the admittedly aggressive position that the third of these three perspectives is the correct one: that the nature and purposes of business corporations are unavoidably religious.

In doing so, I seek to respond to Professor Johnson's call that "corporate law scholars find creative ways to give greater prominence to a more organic sensibility, a sensibility emphasizing in the cultural-business sphere the same appreciation for sustainable human endeavor now being underscored in the heightened environmental consciousness."3

In embarking upon this project, I also take up Professor Johnson's call to "re-enchant" corporate law.4 Time and again, Professor Johnson has urged the necessity of "acknowledging faith's importance-even in the workplace."5 As he has explained, this "permits an emphasis on the forgotten associational elements of corporateness."6 For example, the Bible's "ancient admonition against 'serving two masters' underlies the fiduciary duty of loyalty in corporate law. And it has much to say about 'faithfulness' in general, the core demand of a fiduciary's loyal behavior."7 Thus, a failure to perceive the significant contribution that religious traditions and perspectives can have on our understanding of the corporation yields an approach to corporate law that is sapped of its full potential vibrancy and robustness.

I would go a step further, however, and invoke Fyodor Dostoyevsky's observation that "without God, all things are permitted."8 In an era characterized by repeated instances of gross corporate misconduct, coupled with ceaseless calls for greater corporate responsibility, it seems baffling to omit from the discussion the phenomenon of religion, which arguably constitutes the greatest bridle of mankind's passions and one of the most important shapers of human behavior.

In this Essay, I will proceed as follows: first, I will define the term "religion,"9 as this concept is central to our inquiry. Next, I will observe how the divorce of religion from economics and business, and how the treatment of business as a wholly secular undertaking, is a departure from historical norms.10 Thereafter, I will confront the central question of this Essay and explain why a corporation's purpose is invariably religious in nature. …

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