Grounding Universal Human Rights in Science

What’s New in Psychology?

Grounding Universal Human Rights in Science

Jim Windell

           The Magna Carta, written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king, set forth the rights and liberties of Englishmen. During the American Revolution, the colonists thought they were entitled to the same rights as the English and they turned to the Magna Carta for inspiration to justify action in liberty’s defense. Then, when the American were shaping the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they borrowed phrases and concepts from the Magna Carta.

            The Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta are just two of several notable examples of man’s inherent need for freedom and independence. Whether the tyranny comes from a king, a despotic ruler or slaveholders, all people everywhere share the same desire to be allowed to live as they wish – free of the shackles of oppression, want and fear.

            But why do people all over the world want the same thing? Is it political? Or is it hardwired in the human brain?

           According to a pair of scientists at Brown University, it's because all humans share the same nervous system. Writing in a paper recently published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, these two scholars introduce a new concept called "dignity neuroscience."

           Dignity neuroscience concerns the idea that universal rights are rooted in human brain science. The authors, Tara White and Meghan Gonsalves, argue that numerous studies in disciplines such as developmental psychology and neuroscience support the notions that people thrive when they enjoy basic rights such as agency, self-determination, freedom from want or fear, and freedom of expression. White, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown, and Gonsalves, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Brown, say that science also supports the idea that when societies fail to offer their citizens such rights, allowing them to fall into poverty, privation, violence and war, there can be lasting neurological and psychological consequences.

           In the paper, White and Gonsalves outlined five core concepts that underlie most universal rights declarations: agency, autonomy and self-determination; freedom from want; freedom from fear; uniqueness; and unconditionality. All five, they argue, reflect fundamental features of human brain structure, function and development.

           To support this, they reviewed multiple studies on learning and emotion and found that gray matter in multiple regions of the brain help people draw on their own memories to assess whether goals are worth pursuing or whether risks are worth taking. Those studies, they contend, demonstrate that agency – the ability to shape one's own choices and actions in the world – is intrinsic to the brain. They also discovered that studies have shown that observers, victims and combatants of war experience long-term brain trauma. This trauma usually occurs in the form of heightened stress levels, negative emotions and fears of physical danger – and this is true even after threats of violence have passed. This, they say, adds scientific weight to declarations that all people deserve to be shielded from war when possible.

           According to White, “I think the average person on the street sees universal human rights as an international law concept that has more to do with trade than about individual lives.” But she went on to say that “But this stuff is not pie-in-the-sky, and it affects us all. We want to show people that ensuring universal human rights is a crucial foundation for a society that is healthy – not only socially and physically, but also psychologically and neurologically.”

           Tara White, who is affiliated with Brown's Carney Institute for Brain Science, said that the idea of "dignity neuroscience" first began to take shape for her three years ago when she was attending a human rights conference in London. As many participants at the conference discussed such topics as an apparent global shift away from allegiance to universal rights, threats to a free press and the stripping away of democratic rights in many countries, she felt at first she had no advice to offer. “Then the lightning bolt hit: Every single part of my training was relevant to these ideas,” White said. “All of the very complex international laws they were discussing fell into five categories, and all of them had a basis in psychology and developmental neuroscience.”

           While the paper provides a comprehensive set of connections between universal rights law and brain science, White hopes the work inspires more connection between people in vastly different fields of study. She believes that crossing traditionally siloed scientific aisles could lead to breakthroughs for brain scientists, social scientists and law experts alike.

           Understanding and considering “dignity neuroscience” could also, White said, help lawmakers and voters appreciate the simultaneous importance of providing each person with the same basic rights while also giving them room to live as they please.

           Co-author Gonsalves added, “I wanted to help others and build a better society, and I think these ideas can do that. I believe the more we can use science to communicate our commonalities and differences, the more successful we will be in encouraging compassion.”

           And White concluded, “If I had one takeaway, it would be this: People are worthy of respect because of who they are, because they are the same as you and because they are different than you. We all have common needs, and when those needs are fulfilled, it helps us flourish. But at the same time, each of us deserves space for agency, because we are all unique.”

           To read the original journal, find it with this reference:

Tara L. White & Meghan A. Gonsalves. (2021). Dignity neuroscience: universal rights are rooted in human brain science. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences; DOI: 10.1111/nyas.14670


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