Wednesday, October 24, 2012
A striking feature of contemporary human rights scholarship is the extent to which it has turned its back on the idea that human rights can grounded in a theory of human nature. Philosophers, social scientists, and political and legal theorists thus frequently assert that the classical Enlightenment project of supplying a naturalistic foundation for human rights is dead. The main purpose of this contribution to a new book of essays on human rights is to rebut this pervasive skepticism. Drawing on recent work in the cognitive science of moral judgment, I defend one of the critical premises of ancient philosophy, Enlightenment Rationalism and the modern human rights movement alike: that human beings are moral and political animals, who are endowed with a moral faculty or sense of justice. The chapter thereby seeks to offer a new perspective on an old and venerable argument about the naturalistic foundation of human rights. . . .
The central aim of the chapter is to [describe] how researchers from a variety of disciplines (including experimental philosophy, developmental and social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, primatology, anthropology, comparative criminal law, and other fields) have begun to converge on a scientific theory of human moral cognition that, at least in its broad contours, bears a striking resemblance to the classical accounts of moral philosophy, natural jurisprudence, and the law of nations that reverberate throughout the ages. These classical accounts typically rest on the claim that an innate moral faculty and with it principles of justice, fairness, empathy, and solidarity are written into the very frame of human nature. These themes were particularly influential during the Enlightenment, when the modern human rights movement first emerged. It is precisely this set of ideas that modern cognitive science, liberated from the crippling methodological restrictions of positivism, behaviorism, historicism, and other discredited theoretical frameworks, has recently begun to explicate and to a substantial extent verify. This new trend in the science of human nature, I suggest, has potentially profound implications for the theory and practice of universal human rights.