ERC Consolidator Grant for Rutger Claassen: research into the political role of corporations.

Doing Business at the boundaries between public and private

Prof. dr. Rutger Claassen. Foto: Ed van Rijswijk

Companies are being regulated by politics, but they also shape the political arena themselves, whenever they influence politicians and political parties. Moreover, companies fulfill public functions such as providing public goods, regulating their own business activities, or addressing societal problems, like environmental harms.

Mixture of public and private

Can such a mixture of private activity and public responsibility be legitimate, in a democratic society? Doesn’t this give corporations too much political power? Are multinationals different in this respect from other companies? These are central questions in the recently awarded ERC-project of philosopher prof. dr. Rutger Claassen.

A new social contract

Each ERC Consolidator Grant is worth two million euros and will enable a research group to do five years of research. The project ‘The Business Corporation as a Political Actor’ is based on the hypothesis that a new social contract is necessary to legitimate the public role of contemporary corporations. This requires transplanting notions traditionally used for legitimizing states – like respecting human rights, democratic procedures, and standards of social justice – to corporations. Is such a thing possible; or do publicly acting corporations necessarily undermine the social contract?

Political theories

To answer this question, the project researches the possibilities to apply existing political theories of legitimacy to corporations. This theoretical reflection is combined with practical case studies on different types of regulation of corporate activity: corporate governance regulating, tax policies, and competition law, etc. To do so, the project integrates political philosophy with insights from other disciplines, such as law, economics, political science and history.

Rutger Claassen

Prof. dr. Rutger Claassen is professor of Political Philosophy and Economic Ethics, at Utrecht University. He studied law and philosophy, and obtained his PhD at Utrecht University, with a thesis about the moral limits of the market. Rutger Claassen is currently program Director of the new BA-program Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), which started in 2018.

One part of his research is about political philosophy, looking at the foundational values of liberal democracy, like freedom, democracy and social justice. Another part is about economic ethics. Here he studies the moral value of economic institutions, like markets, corproations and property. He is currently project leader of a research project on Private Property and Political Power (2017-2022), sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Claassen is affiliated with Institutions for Open Societies, the UU’s interdisciplinary theme which studies the development of open societies.


Claassen published widely in international journals about capability theory, autonomy, markets, property, and other topics. Last year his monograph on social justice appeared, Capabilities in a Just Society. A Theory of Navigational Agency (Cambridge University Press, 2018). This year, Claassen was co-editor of a special issue of the  Journal of Common Market Studies about the European Social Market Economy. Also this year, he published the book Ondernemen in de Open Samenleving (Boom, 2019) co-edited with Judith van Erp.