The Origins and The Future of Human Rights

In the world of international affairs, there’s perhaps no concept more fundamental than human rights. Yet despite that, these rights seem to be under greater threat in more places than we’ve seen in a long time. 

In order to understand how we might better promote human rights around the world, we at Trending Globally wanted to take a step back and explore the very concept of ‘human rights.’ Sarah Baldwin ‘87 and Dan Richards spoke with two experts -- one a political scientist, and one a neuroscientist -- about where exactly this concept comes from, and where it might be going. 

Guests on this episode:

Nina Tannenwald, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Brown University

Tara White, Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University

Read Tara White’s paper on ‘Dignity Neuroscience.’

Learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts on our website.

SARAH BALDWIN: One day in:

TARA WHITE: It was called Working Together-- Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality.

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara is a neuroscientist and an Assistant Professor at Brown, but the year of this conference, she was on a fellowship through the British Academy at the University of Cambridge. The fellowship was designed to be sort of cross-disciplinary. So when she got the invite to spend a day with a bunch of human rights experts, she thought, why not?


TARA WHITE: I took the train down to London.

SARAH BALDWIN: The conference was made up mostly of lawyers, activists, and scholars. And it was full of big ideas like global development goals, statelessness, and human rights. Tara was interested in the content, but at first, she mostly just felt like a fish out of water.

TARA WHITE: I find myself as sort of the only behavioral scientist and certainly the only neuroscientist in this room full of folks who were really deeply involved in human rights issues. I thought, wow, I'm just completely out of my field here, which is sort of the point of going abroad to have an experience of any sort.

SARAH BALDWIN: It was sort of an abroad trip within an abroad trip, but she was game.

TARA WHITE: And so I said, well, I'm just going to clear my mind and just immerse myself completely in this world.

: And this world, in the year:

TARA WHITE: There was a palpable sense of anxiety and despair about where we were with human rights protections and the impunity with which they can be overridden.

SARAH BALDWIN: It was the middle of the Trump presidency back home, and it was a period of growing authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism around the world.

TARA WHITE: As they're talking through and debating amongst themselves about the best ways to address these needs of human rights, there's, like any field, specialized language, right? So I'm just staying afloat with the language.

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara was at first a little overwhelmed by all the jargon and esoteric legal concepts, but she was fascinated. And halfway through the day, something changed for her.

TARA WHITE: I think it was a slow process and then a fast process.

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara started to see connections between the idea of human rights and her own work as a neuroscientist, connections that no one else at the conference was seeing. What she saw would ultimately launch her into a new project, one that would consume much of her next two years. And it's a project that will hopefully help human rights advocates at a moment when they need all the help they can get.

From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. There's perhaps nothing more fundamental to fight for in the world of international affairs than human rights. Yet despite that, human rights seem to be under greater threat in more places than we've seen in a long time. So on this episode, we wanted to take a deep dive into the idea of human rights-- where it came from, what's encompassed by that very phrase, and one person who's thinking about it in some pretty new ways.

Before we get back to Tara and what she realized at that conference, we need to get a better understanding of this term human rights. We all have a sense of what it is, but can you really define it? For that, here's our producer, Dan Richards.

DAN RICHARDS: When most advocates and scholars talk about human rights, they're actually referring to a pretty specific set of documents and treaties.

eclaration of Human Rights in:

al rights started long before:

ng back to the Magna Carta in:

DAN RICHARDS: But those declarations were hardly applicable to all humans in all circumstances.

NINA TANNENWALD: These were the rights of parliament, of lords against the king, and eventually of citizens against the government. These conceptions of rights were, of course, at that time quite partial. They were the rights of white male landowners.

rsal declaration of rights in:

NINA TANNENWALD: Why did they build human rights into the new UN? It's because of the experience of World War II and Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

DAN RICHARDS: The United Nations was formed largely in response to World War II. And soon after it was formed, they decided to create a declaration of human rights. It was a noble idea, but they quickly ran into some issues, such as--

NINA TANNENWALD: --how could you create a universal statement in a world of such diverse cultures and countries?

DAN RICHARDS: One way they did this was by keeping capital P Politics out of it.

NINA TANNENWALD: It doesn't make a lot of ideological pronouncements. The group of countries, eight countries who were the drafting committee, were actually quite diverse. So there's a French Zionist and a Chinese Confucian scholar and a Russian and an American and a Chilean, who played a very important role. And the Lebanese delegate also played a very important role. So they really attempted to write a document that would be broadly acceptable to the diverse states in the world.

DAN RICHARDS: Also, they kept it short.

NINA TANNENWALD: So it only has 30 articles, it's relatively spare. The goal of the drafting committee was to make it so that it would be understandable by, at the time they said, the man in the street.

DAN RICHARDS: So what did they come up with?

NINA TANNENWALD: There are 30 articles in the Universal Declaration. And basically, they divide into civil and political rights and then economic and social and cultural rights. So the Civil and political rights are things like freedom of speech, freedom of conscience.

For example, Article 3 says everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. Nobody will be held in slavery. All are equal before the law. Due process, effective trials, everybody has the right to participate in the political system of their country. Nobody can be subjected to arbitrary detainment or uses of force.

DAN RICHARDS: Those rights are ones that are probably pretty familiar to anyone who's ever read the US Bill of Rights or perused the Magna Carta. The economic, social, and cultural rights, however, those are a little different.

NINA TANNENWALD: Everybody has a right to a basic standard of living, to education, to health care, the right to participate in a cultural community, the right to housing, to rest. Article 24 actually says everyone has the right to rest and leisure. Paid vacations, which was a contribution of the socialist countries.

DAN RICHARDS: Sign me up. But seriously, it's an impressive articulation of the things all humans deserve. Listing them out, of course, doesn't mean actually providing them.

NINA TANNENWALD: At the time this document was adopted, it was not law. It was aspirational. It was not a legally binding treaty. It was simply an aspiration.

DAN RICHARDS: We still live in a world of nations. And national interests often trump global ones. But that doesn't mean the Declaration of Rights is useless.

NINA TANNENWALD: We can ask again, why do you need this? And again, it gets back to the idea that states felt like it was so important that it needed to be created as international standards for all states. That states needed to be accountable to each other. States needed to be able to hold each other accountable for human rights violations. And citizens needed to be able to hold their government accountable.

DAN RICHARDS: This declaration would lay a foundation. The idea was, and is, that on top of this foundation would go more specific forms of enforcement. So to sum up, many of the rights themselves in this declaration were not new but instead adapted from long-held traditions and beliefs. And the declaration itself was mostly aspirational and not very enforceable. But as Nina describes, even given its limitations, it was still a revolutionary document.

NINA TANNENWALD: So it was the process of creating a set of rights for the whole world, that was the revolutionary part. And the revolutionary part was saying the international community can look inside states, muck around inside states, and say, we don't like the way you're treating your people. That is very, very different from the old days of international relations.

DAN RICHARDS: Were that this declaration marked the beginning of the end of human rights abuses, but sadly, the last few years have been an especially dark time when it comes to protecting humans basic dignity.

NINA TANNENWALD: It's not a very good time for human rights. Russia is really cracking down on rights domestically. China is, of course, quite repressive at home, not only with its repression of the Uyghur minority but also just in terms of becoming a surveillance state domestically.

But the democracies aren't doing very well either. There's a backsliding among the democracies. And this is connected to the rise of populist nationalism. We do need a renewed commitment to universal rights. And I think the democracies have to get themselves together and do a little more to lead the way there.

DAN RICHARDS: So how might we get democracies and then, hopefully, the rest of the world to take these ideas more seriously? Something you might not notice unless someone points it out to you.

NINA TANNENWALD: And what's really interesting is if you go back to the Universal Declaration and it provides no foundations for its opening statement. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration says all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. There is no philosophical foundation for that anywhere.

And why? Because there were many different philosophical worldviews that had to be captured here-- Catholic or Confucian. And it's very spare. They just went without any philosophical foundations.

DAN RICHARDS: And that point brings us back to Tara White, the neuroscientist at Brown. Here's Sarah with the rest of Tara's story and what Tara found.

BALDWIN: So to refresh, it's:

The first one is similar to what you just heard from Nina, that the concept of human rights, it's a little mushy by a scientist's standards.

TARA WHITE: Human rights, which are of utmost importance both locally and globally, are grounded in an extremely important idea that is actually undefined.

SARAH BALDWIN: Not undefined in the literal sense, but these rights, they're not grounded in any sort of objective measurements or data about humans and how we work. The concept is often famously described as--

TARA WHITE: --self-evident. They're grounded in the dignity of the human person, inherent human dignity. So that's a profoundly important statement and truth. But yet both in the conference and in the source documents, there's actually no definition of what human dignity entails.

SARAH BALDWIN: A human being's innate dignity is the foundation of the US declaration. But dignity can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Some folks could also argue that others lack dignity.

This all to Tara seemed like a potential weakness when it comes to defending human rights. That was realization number one. The second realization came as Tara started to do what scientists do.

TARA WHITE: In both psychology and neuroscience, I mean, part of our job is to see patterns in data, right? And in a weird way, all the different articles in these United Nations documents are in a strange way just data. And so what I did basically is an armchair factor analysis of what are these domains.

SARAH BALDWIN: And it hit her.

TARA WHITE: It was a slow process and then a fast process.

SARAH BALDWIN: She started to see a pattern. Every article in the UN Declaration, and in any other treaty or document that folks at this conference were discussing, every right could be sorted into basically five categories. Category one.

TARA WHITE: Agency, autonomy, and self-determination.

SARAH BALDWIN: Category two.

TARA WHITE: The freedom from want or extreme poverty.


TARA WHITE: Freedom from fear.


TARA WHITE: Uniqueness.


TARA WHITE: Unconditionality.

SARAH BALDWIN: In these five categories or domains, as Tara calls them, they are states of being that Tara is an expert in explaining at a biological level.

TARA WHITE: Every single thing I know as a psychologist and a neuroscientist is relevant to these domains.

SARAH BALDWIN: These five domains, you can actually see in our brains how humans are wired to have them. There are parts of our brains that thrive when we have them and parts that wither when we don't. And there was exactly one person at this conference who could explain them in these scientific terms.

TARA WHITE: And then it occurred to me just in this huge flash. I was like, oh, my god--

SARAH BALDWIN: --maybe Tara could help define human rights beyond just self-evidence.

TARA WHITE: At the end of the conference, I actually-- and, of course, I'm in the back of the room because I'm just an observer-- I stand up and I actually put this whole concept out there. And I said would this be helpful?

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara explained to all these lawyers and activists--

TARA WHITE: I think that everything you're talking about is obviously the work of a lifetime. And it's some of the most essential work that anyone can do. And in support of that, it seems to me that there are these several different categories all of which have embodiment in the human brain and nervous system. And with connecting these different domains with basic processes of human neural development. Would that piece of information be helpful?

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara was offering to provide a neurological justification for human rights.

TARA WHITE: And there was a pause in the front of the room. And they said we've really never heard anyone say anything like that before. And we do actually think it might be helpful. It would be helpful.

So I got myself on the train and took the train back to Cambridge. And then I sat down in my office that was overlooking the very beautiful garden there at Claire Hall at the University of Cambridge. And I wrote the first draft of this paper in one sitting.


TARA WHITE: Agency, autonomy, and self-determination; the freedom from want or extreme poverty, freedom from fear; uniqueness, and unconditionally.

SARAH BALDWIN: As Tara and her co-author write, "we posit that the five categories described above reflect fundamental features of brain structure, function, and development in humans." They call the project dignity neuroscience. So how exactly do they make these connections? Let's take an example.

So that first category--

TARA WHITE: --agency, autonomy, and self-determination.

SARAH BALDWIN: A bunch of articles in the UN Declaration of Rights fit under this domain. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom to get married and have a family to name a few. And this domain, category, whatever you want to call it--

TARA WHITE: --it comes from a place right deep in the middle of your brain called the ventral tegmentum. So we call it the VTA for short. And it has this ascending arc that comes up through the brain. And it basically innervates really strongly right behind right where your forehead is and your eyes. So it's deeply innovating parts of the brain that are involved in planning, what they call executive function, but also in really important parts of the brain for translating feeling into action.

And so these are areas that we call the nucleus accumbens is part of the ventral striatum. But it's also part of the brain that allows you to take voluntary action in the world. And so that's really fundamentally what agency is in the brain is the connection between motivation and action. And so those are the circuits that are relevant to the domain of agency.

SARAH BALDWIN: OK. If you didn't follow all of that, don't worry. There's not a test at the end of this podcast. But hopefully, you get the idea. Their paper explains how these five domains are built into our brain. Anyone could see these structures and connections regardless of politics, religion, or culture, how they define dignity, or who they consider human.

TARA WHITE: It lays the groundwork in a way that's freer from cultural and religious baggage to discuss it in a clean way.

SARAH BALDWIN: Put another way--

TARA WHITE: --grounding human rights in neurobiology is-- I think, it really bolsters the whole framework. And so it helps solve the problem that dignity is undefined and that human rights are defined by mutual agreement. So we've given a new intellectual infrastructure supporting the whole enterprise.

SARAH BALDWIN: Hopefully, this episode has also made something else clear. Human rights don't need a scientific explanation to be worth fighting for. As Nina Tannenwald put it--

NINA TANNENWALD: Every parent would want human rights for their child. What's interesting is even though human rights are very contested at the level of politics and diplomacy, when you look more closely, authoritarian governments will protest at the UN that human rights is a Western concept that shouldn't be imposed on them. But if you look more closely at what's going on within the state, people within the state-- the citizens, the population, will often say, no, we want human rights.

Again, it's not that they want it exactly like the United States, but they want that basic set of rights. And why is that? Because it's a fundamentally appealing idea. The intrinsic appeal of that idea, it makes sense to people, it resonates.

And when people don't have their rights, they claim them. And even if they don't know exactly what their rights are supposed to be, people have a fundamental sense of fairness. And when they're in difficult positions, they will say I have some rights here. What are my rights? I have rights. I shouldn't be treated like this.

SARAH BALDWIN: But, of course, this basic appeal has never been enough to guarantee these rights to everyone. And it's also true that there's probably no definition or evidence that will make all of humanity follow the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. It will always be aspirational. But as Nina put it, research like Tara's might help make the case for human rights a little harder to ignore.

NINA TANNENWALD: It's a very interesting idea. And it provides empirical reinforcement or scientific reinforcement for an idea that many people share, which is that all people are basically the same and that everybody deserves a life with dignity. The dignity neuroscience then might provide some of that foundation in these psychological findings about the nature of the human brain. So it's an interesting development that will contribute overall to our understanding of the universal nature of these rights.

SARAH BALDWIN: Tara hopes her work can contribute in just that way. But there's another reason she thinks it's important.

TARA WHITE: Bringing these ideas so that they can really help improve the way that we treat one another, both on a local and a global scale, that's going to be a group effort. And it's going to only improve from a diversity of experience and voices. So that's really my hope is that this is the seed. And that lots of other people will chime in with their experience and their expertise. Because I think it can be used in many different ways.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts on our website. We'll put a link to it in the show notes. And if you haven't already, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.


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Dan Richards

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