Dignity Neuroscience: A Universal Rationale for Human Rights

by | Feb 7, 2023

author profile picture

About Tara White and Roza Spencer

Tara White and Roza Spencer are both based at Brown University. Dr White is on the Faculty of the Behavioral and Social Sciences department, is founding director of the Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience, and is affiliated Faculty with the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at the Watson Institute. She is a Life Fellow at Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, and a named Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. Her work spans three areas: dignity neuroscience, the human neuroscience of emotion, and drug effects in the human brain. Her efforts in founding the field of dignity neuroscience (dignityneuroscience.org; dignityneuroscience.com) provide a new line of inquiry linking neuroscience and human rights. Roza is an undergraduate working towards a BA in International and Public Affairs, with a special interest in the intersection of human rights and brain science. She has been involved with dignity neuroscience research at the White Lab since Spring 2022.

Image description: Medical diagram of the first two domains of dignity neuroscience: (1) Agency, Autonomy & Self-Determination; (2) Freedom from Want

Universal human rights are rooted in international consensus, derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent UN covenants and treaties. Rights in these documents are implicitly grounded in the notion of “inherent human dignity,” an abstract moral concept vulnerable to subversion by conflict and competing priorities. A framework of “dignity neuroscience” addresses this philosophical gap in the rationale for human rights. Dignity neuroscience supports universal rights using human brain science, demonstrating that rights are essential for healthy brain development and functioning across the life course. The framework of dignity neuroscience thus has the potential to strengthen cross-cultural consensus and global adherence to human rights standards.

The Foundations of Human Rights: A Philosophical Gap

The philosophical and moral foundations of universal human rights are not clearly defined. In international documents outlining core human rights, there is no explicit justification why particular rights are crucial for affirming human dignity. Many scholars identify this philosophical gap as a core driving factor of global failures to uphold human rights standards. Indeed, while human rights treaties are widely ratified, they are not upheld with universal vigilance. Dissent is often justified with cultural relativism, the philosophy that morality differs by culture, and thus reifies the argument that rights are not universally applicable. Filling this philosophical gap using dignity neuroscience provides a common rationale for universality and global advocacy.

Dignity Neuroscience: Filling the Gap

The philosophical gap persists because it is quite difficult to identify a singular moral justification for human rights that is universally accepted across all cultures. However, while scholars have not been able to determine if all humans share a common moral code, there have been significant scientific advancements in understanding our shared human biology. We now have extensive knowledge of the environments and practices necessary to ensure healthy development of the human body and mind to its full potential. In direct relevance to human rights, a new field of scholarship termed “dignity neuroscience” coalesces data on the effects of rights deprivations on the human brain. These scientific findings, outlined in a recent publication from the White Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience, help address the philosophical gap behind human rights with data supported by cross-cultural consensus.

Defining Dignity Neuroscience

Dignity neuroscience categorises universal human rights into five key domains: “Agency, Autonomy, and Self-Determination,” “Freedom from Want,” “Freedom from Fear,” “Uniqueness,” and “Unconditionality.” Deprivation of any of these domains leads to significant, long-lasting, and in some cases cross-generational changes in brain structure, function, and development. Unlike the unresolved debates within moral philosophy, brain science data has a high likelihood of being readily accepted across distinct cultures and populations, for it reflects our shared neurobiology as humans. A universal commitment to provide a healthy and safe environment for the development of the human brain, as outlined in dignity neuroscience, could thus strengthen the global commitment to uphold human rights.

In addition to grounding universal human rights in objective evidence, dignity neuroscience distills the many existing lists of internationally acknowledged human rights into five clearly articulated domains. At present, there is no clear way for people to know and claim their rights without a close study of the Universal Declaration, the Covenants, and other human rights treaties. These documents are often lengthy and can be intimidating for people unfamiliar with formal legal language. In contrast, the five domains of dignity neuroscience provide an accessible road map for engaging with human rights in a language that may be more familiar to people across different backgrounds. The framework of dignity neuroscience thus provides cross-disciplinary clarity, making it easier for people to claim their rights, and harder for states to evade their responsibility to protect human dignity.


Dignity neuroscience has significant potential to strengthen the global human rights endeavour. Toward this end, our next steps are to seed global networks and engage the public, policymakers, and international institutions in the framework. Together we can initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue between the physical and social sciences to affirm the importance of protecting universal human rights. Ultimately, whether in law, policymaking, or civil society organisations, the framework of dignity neuroscience is a key tool in the struggle for a more just world.

Want to learn more?

Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment