March 5, 2024

A star is born: ‘dignity neuroscience’

‘Universal rights are based on fundamental features of human brain structure, function, and development’

The Code of Hammurabi. The Ten Commandments. The Beatitudes. The Magna Carta. The Declaration of Independence. Throughout history, statements such as these have proclaimed that people deserve freedom, security and dignity. Why have universal human rights remained largely unchanged?

According to an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, it's because humans share the same nervous system. “Universal rights are thus based on fundamental features of human brain structure, function, and development,” they contend. This is the foundational principle of what they call “dignity neuroscience”.

The authors argue that numerous studies in developmental psychology and neuroscience bolster notions that people thrive when they enjoy basic rights such as agency, self-determination, freedom from want or fear, and freedom of expression. And 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.

“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,” says lead author Tara White, of Brown University. “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.”

Five core concepts 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.

“The idea of universal human rights as a foundation for a healthy society isn't just a social phenomenon but also a deeply empirical and scientific one,” Gonsalves said. “Applying scientific studies and hard evidence to universal human rights can help demonstrate why these rights need to be defended and respected across the world.”

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.

“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,” White said. “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.”

The bold announcement of the emergence of a whole new field of science is sure to be savagely criticised. Philosophers are bound to say that it ignores Hume’s is-ought problem: how can morality be inferred from neuroscience?

Nor is it clear whether nonhuman animals, plants, earth, and water are also moral subjects or whether dignity is proportionate to brain function. And it dodges the question of whether human brains could be modified so that they are no longer deserving of some of the rights.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge  

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