Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Carol Gould

Committee Members

Charles Mills

Virginia Held

Jennifer Morton

Kyle Whyte

Subject Categories

Ethics and Political Philosophy | Philosophy


territory, territorial rights, self-determination, ecological sustainability, social ontology, democracy, justice, legitimacy, colonialism, Indigenous peoples, structural racism, corrective justice, immigration, borders, boundary problem


In this dissertation, I advance a novel eco-political theory of territory that grounds a people’s territorial rights in its right to political self-determination understood as inextricably and normatively bound up with its right to ecological integrity and duty of ecological sustainability. I develop a social ontology of the people as the holder of territorial rights based on its members’ place-based common activities that aim at their own independent governance rather than in terms of state institutions, cultural nationhood, ethnogeography, political identity, or shared conceptions of justice. The common activities of a people generate a group right to democratic self-determination since no one has more of a right than any other to determine the nature and course of their common activities and otherwise domination ensues. Because a people’s common activities are fundamentally attached to a place, its self-determination must be realized through recognizing its territorial rights to jurisdictional authority and to (some) control over resources and borders.

A people also has the right to ecological integrity and a duty of ecological sustainability since the ecosystems of its territory must be protected otherwise the material preconditions for human life and political society would be undercut. A people ecologically sustaining its own territory is not only an internal constraint on its right to self-determination but is also party constituted by its self-determination. For a people to sustain its own existence within the ecosystems of its territory will just involve the people setting the terms of the common activities that are a very part of those ecosystems. Likewise, a people’s right to ecological integrity is a constituent part and an enabling condition of a people’s external self-determination. Because a people’s right to political self-determination is intertwined with its duty of ecological sustainability and its right to ecological integrity, I characterize the principle at the basis of justifying a people’s territorial rights as one of eco-political self-determination.

In addition to developing a general account of territorial rights, I consider how my eco-political theory addresses the issues of Indigenous territorial rights, structural racism, and immigration controls. I argue that an eco-political theory fares better than alternative accounts (such as neo-Lockean property theories, legitimate state theories, and cultural nationalist theories) in comprehensively grounding the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples in the face of colonialist violations of their self-determination and ecological integrity. Next, since legitimacy is a necessary condition for the exercise of territorial rights, I develop the concept of “transitional legitimacy” as analogous to but distinct from the framework of transitional justice to theorize how to realize legitimate political institutions from within an ill-ordered society structured by racial oppression. Finally, I consider the territorial right to control immigration and argue that the principle of self-determination both grounds and constrains a people’s qualified right to exclude potential immigrants, which provides an answer to the boundary problem in democratic theory of how to determine the scope of the people in a non-question-begging way.