Rehabilitating Corporate Purpose

55 Pages Posted: 10 May 2019

See all articles by Malcolm S. Salter

Malcolm S. Salter

HBS Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit

Date Written: April 6, 2019


In this essay, I address how the ascendance of the theory of shareholder value maximization into the central consciousness of public corporations and its canonization as the only legitimate expression of corporate purpose has contributed to both a widening breach between American-style capitalism and justice and increased alienation of the public from capitalism as a system of economic governance. Despite the vast academic literature and many management testimonials advocating a broader conception of corporate purpose — one that addresses the interests of firms’ multiple constituencies and the well-being of their employees, customers, and operating environment — shareholder value maximization remains the de facto expression of corporate purpose and guide for decision making for most publicly owned firms in the United States (and the United Kingdom). I argue that narrowing the compatibility gap between capitalism and justice and reversing declining public trust in contemporary capitalism requires a very different conception of corporate purpose — one reflecting established moral and economic principles that challenge those underlying the shareholder value maximization doctrine. To this end, I start by discussing the vulnerability of contemporary capitalism, which is largely rooted in the social and moral disengagement of firms operating under this doctrine. I then explain how the emergence of the doctrine over the past four decades has led to this social and moral disengagement, what the theoretical underpinnings of the shareholder value maximization doctrine are, how this doctrine has become so deeply ingrained in our capitalist system, and the conceptual and practical problems presented by this doctrine and related theory of the firm. Next, I propose an alternate, principle-based guideline for corporate purpose that blends Aristotle’s theory of reciprocal justice with considerations of corporate purpose, along with Chester Barnard’s compatible theory of business organizations as cooperative systems. Aristotle stresses the ethicality of cooperation in transactional settings; Barnard stresses the efficiencies and adaptive benefits flowing from cooperation. Both see utility in truly reciprocal, cooperative relationships, which is not a priority in a shareholder value maximization regime. This alternative approach — referred to as ethical reciprocity — not only provides the basis for a rebuttal of the shareholder-primacy doctrine based on principles of justice and economic efficiency, but also offers a practical guideline for balancing the interests of shareholders and other corporate constituencies in the conduct of everyday business affairs. After presenting ethical reciprocity as a justice-sensitive guideline for corporate purpose, I turn to two practical questions related to its implementation: (a) whether “reciprocity practitioners” can compete in a world dominated by shareholder value maximizers, and (b) if so, what asset holders and asset managers, corporate directors, and educators can do — and, in some instances, are currently doing — to foster increased attention to both the principle and spirit of ethical reciprocity in the definition and pursuit of corporate purpose.

Suggested Citation

Salter, Malcolm S., Rehabilitating Corporate Purpose (April 6, 2019). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 19-104, Available at SSRN: or

Malcolm S. Salter (Contact Author)

HBS Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-495-6623 (Phone)
617-354-8465 (Fax)

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