The rights of microbes

CS Cockell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Over the last forty years, the circle of organisms thought worthy of inclusion within an ethical framework has expanded markedly, in large part in response to Aldo Leopold's 'land ethic'. However, there are still clear limits to the forms of life we are willing to include in such a framework. In this paper I suggest that a strong case can be made for microorganisms to be accorded special ethical status, as they represent the base of all food chains and of the major biogeochemical cycles. Without lions there is life, but without microorganisms there can be no higher life forms. The notion of protecting individual microorganisms may be absurd, but microbial communities and ecosystems nevertheless deserve protection, and offer an example of the merit of a population based approach to environmental ethics. I argue that humankind should assume the position of a moral agent to the microbial world, by formally recognising the intrinsic worth of microorganisms, as well as their utilitarian value to humans and to the rest of life on earth. The practical implications of such an ethic are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-150
Number of pages10
JournalInterdisciplinary Science Reviews
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2004


Dive into the research topics of 'The rights of microbes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this