Moral Grammar and Human Rights: Some Reflections on Cognitive Science and Enlightenment Rationalism

UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL ACTION, PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS, Ryan Goodman, Derek Jinks, & Andrew K. Woods, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012

Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-124

40 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2011 Last revised: 8 Nov 2012

See all articles by John Mikhail

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: September 9, 2011


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.

This new perspective begins from the observation that whether human beings possess a common moral faculty is not primarily a philosophical, political, or theological question, but an empirical question that belongs in principle in the cognitive and brain sciences, broadly construed. The confident assertions of skeptics such as Michael Ignatieff, Richard Rorty, Gilbert Ryle, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Posner, Robert Bork, and other writers notwithstanding, one cannot therefore simply decide the matter from the armchair. On the contrary, probative evidence and sound scientific argument must be brought to bear. This new paradigm also begins from the recognition that two of the most significant intellectual developments of the past fifty years are the cognitive revolution in the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior and the human rights revolution in constitutional and international law. The former displaced the narrow forms of positivism and behaviorism that dominated academic philosophy and psychology during the first part of the twentieth century and prevented researchers from formulating coherent theories of the "distinct and original powers of the human mind" that had formed the basis of much Enlightenment jurisprudence, moral philosophy, and political theory. For its part, motivated by the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and other familiar atrocities, the human rights revolution in constitutional and international law has dramatically extended the reach and application of basic moral and legal precepts to every corner of the globe.

The central aim of the chapter is to bring these two influential movements into fruitful contact with one another by describing 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.

Keywords: human rights, cognitive science, experimental philosophy, Enlightenment rationalism, moral grammar, international law, relativism, moral intuitions, Ignatieff, Rorty, Ryle, MacIntyre, Freud, Durkheim, Sumner, Benedict, Posner, Bork, Holmes, Chomsky, De Waal, Grotius, Aristotle

JEL Classification: D63, D64, K00, K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Mikhail, John, Moral Grammar and Human Rights: Some Reflections on Cognitive Science and Enlightenment Rationalism (September 9, 2011). UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL ACTION, PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS, Ryan Goodman, Derek Jinks, & Andrew K. Woods, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-124, Available at SSRN:

John Mikhail (Contact Author)

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