Research seminar: The moral grounding of the legal rights of ecosystems

As part of IDEA's 2020-21 research seminar series, we welcome Dr Neil Williams from the University of Roehampton to discuss the moral rights of ecosystems.


“Rivers, mountains, and other ecosystems have been granted legal rights. These rights typically prevent the exploitation of these ecosystems for human gain, deny that these ecosystems can be treated as property, and recognise that ecosystems have a right to flourish free of human interference. We might think that these legal rights are merely instrumental attempts to protect natural areas from human exploitation, given the limits of our political and legal framework. But expression of these rights of nature are universally accompanied and justified by moral claims about the worthiness of ecosystems to have their rights recognised. In this paper, I explore the possibility that the legal rights of ecosystems might be grounded in their moral rights.

I explore the two common ways of grounding the moral rights of an entity: the idea that rights function to protect the legitimate interests of the bearers of rights, and the idea that rights are justified by the recognition of a kind of status within the entity, for which respect is appropriate. I argue that neither of these approaches work to ground the legal rights of nature in moral rights – as ecosystems cannot (non-metaphorically) be understood to have interests, and nor do they have the kind of attributes generally recognised as being worthy of respect in the rights ways. However, substantial revisions to our metaphysical account of non-human entities – represented for instance by indigenous cosmologies – might better allow us to ground the legal rights of ecosystems in moral rights. Failing the viability of this metaphysical revision, I argue that we can still ground the rights of ecosystems in a moral principle of respect.”

Find out more about Dr Neil Williams.

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Please see our 2020-21 schedule for more upcoming research seminars.

This research seminar series of webinars is curated by Dr Andrew Kirton.