This Article, the first of a multipart project, addresses the nature of corporate personhood, one area where law has played a central role in the history of corporate responsibility in the United States.1 The treatment will be illustrative, not exhaustive. Consistent with the theme of the larger project, the Article serves to make the simple but important point that a full historical understanding of corporate responsibility requires an appreciation of the law’s significant, if ultimately limited, contribution to the longstanding American quest for more responsible corporate conduct. On one hand, the spheres of law and corporate responsibility, although clearly complementary, might be seen as distinct, in both theory and practice. Law, after all, mandates—with the state’s full sanctioning power behind it—compliance with specified standards of behavior. Apart from a decision to comply or disobey, there is no real exercise of discretion in choosing to abide by the law. “Responsible” conduct, on the other hand, presupposes the freedom to engage in or refrain from certain conduct. Viewed this way, corporate responsibility concerns can be seen as picking up precisely where legal strictures leave off. Consequently, a history of corporate responsibility could be written while being largely unmindful of law and legal theory.
Lyman Johnson, Law and Legal Theory in the History of Corporate Responsibility: Corporate Personhood, 35 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1135 (2012).