Midway assessment: Dignity’s nature: valuing humans and nature in the language of the law by Dina Townsend

PhD candidate Dina Townsend at the Department of Public and International Law is presenting her doctorate project "Dignity’s nature: valuing humans and nature in the language of the law" on Monday May 18th.


  • Professor Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Westminster University, London

Leader of the assessment:

  • Professor Ulf Stridbeck


  • Professor Inger Johanne Sand
  • Professor Christina Voigt

 For outline and draft text, contact Dina Townsend

Dignity’s nature: valuing humans and nature in the language of the law

Environmental scholars have argued that the problem that law faces in its (failed) attempts to protect the environment is a fundamental one: law values humans inherently but nature only instrumentally. This is what environmental scholars call the problem of anthropocentrism, a problem they suggest that sets us permanently in a relationship of conflict with nature.

The anti-anthropocentric argument has two parts. The first is the claim that we value humans inherently and pre-eminently. The second is the claim that we value nature instrumentally and subordinately (and we ought not). These claims, however, are linked – our understanding of the value of humans is based on a long history of distinguishing humans from everything else. How we understand human value is central to how we understand the value of the environment. In this thesis I argue that the way we value humans in law is complex and contested and in need of proper understanding before we can make claims about its implications for the human/environment relationship. So how does law value humans? Law values humans by recognising and demanding respect for human dignity. How we understand human dignity, then, is very important for how we understand the human/nature relationship.

Courts have used dignity in ways that suggests a new legal vocabulary for understanding the human/nature relationship – one that does not simply reduce all humans to a single group with shared environmental impacts and responsibility. I argue that in law’s grappling with human worth, we find the beginnings of a legal language that highlights the ways we value some people differently from others, that the needs of some are different to others and that the responsibility of some should be different to others. We also see instances of law’s recognition that our needs and interests in the rest of nature are complex, conflicted but deeply embedded.

I argue that we find in dignity a concept concerned with human identity, self-knowledge and social recognition. Courts use dignity to talk about both universal humanity and individual distinction. Dignity retains its concern with status and regality, while being also deeply democratic and concerned with equality. Dignity cases are about the human body and the meeting of basic, physical needs while at the same time prioritising self-expression, through writing and language and simply being ourselves. We see instances in the case law of courts using dignity to keep this multiplicity in view and to recognise different facets of the person as part of a continuum. In doing so, these courts use dignity to open an understanding of persons in law as always becoming and to create the space for our imagined selves. I argue that there is potential in this dignity language for a legal recognition of our relationship with nature as part of ourselves, in how we engage with the world, and how we imagine ourselves to be and to become.

With reference to the work of Richard Rorty and Drucilla Cornell, I argue that there is work to be done in developing a vocabulary for a new paradigm in environmental law and I suggest that we find in the concept of dignity the beginnings of this vocabulary.

Published Aug. 10, 2016 10:15 AM - Last modified Nov. 8, 2017 7:59 AM