The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights, by Thomas Berry

In 2001, Thomas Berry published a groundbreaking document that placed human governance and rights into a new context. “The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights” articulates ten new principles for understanding rights. 

Most significantly, Berry asserts that rights neither originate from nor belong exclusively in the human realm. “Rights originate where existence originates,” states the first sentence of the principles. The natural world derives rights from the same source as humans: from the Universe that brought them into existence. From that basic premise flows the idea that human rights are subset of a constellation of rights belonging to every member of the Earth community. 

Berry’s first four principles address the origin of rights in the Universe and on Earth. The next four principles, numbered five though eight, elaborate on the nature of rights for different members of the Earth community. The final two principles stress the vast network of interconnected relationships that the entire community depends upon for survival, nourishment, and creative unfolding. -- (Liz Marshall, 2012)





  1. Rights originate where existence originates. That which determines existence determines rights.
  2. Since it has no further context of existence in the phenomenal order, the universe is self-referent in its being and self-normative in its activities. It is also the primary referent in the being and activities of all derivative modes of being.
  3. The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. As subjects, the component members of the universe are capable of having rights.
  4. The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights, from the universe that brought them into being.
  5. Every component of the Earth community has three rights. The right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing process of the Earth community.
  6. All rights are species specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference of rights is qualitative not quantitative. The rights of an insect would be of no use to a tree or fish.
  7. Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other modes of being to exist in their natural state. Human property rights are not absolute. Property rights are simply a special relationship between a particular human "owner" and a particular piece of "property" for the benefit of both.
  8. Species exist in the form of individuals and groupings--flock, herds, schools of fish and so forth. Rights refer to individuals and groupings, not simply in a general way to species.
  9. These rights as presented here establish the relationships that the various components of the Earth have toward each other. The planet earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. Every component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the Community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment, which includes predator-prey relationship, is integral with the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive community of existence.
  10. In a special manner humans have not only a need for but a right of access to the natural world, not only to supply their physical needs but also to provide the wonder needed by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination, and the intimacy needed by the human emotions.