The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Seventy-Five

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Seventy-Five

 The Universal Declaration will soon turn seventy-five, but its significance as a reflection of human moral psychology remains underappreciated. The realities of international relations need not contradict a natural basis for universal human rights norms.


This is a serious mistake. Although counter-intuitive, the disagreement present in drafting the UDHR by a diverse group of multinational and multicultural representatives supports the link between human nature and this standard of justice. So long, that is, that they manage to settle on a shared conception of justice.

How could this be the case?


Recall above how the optimal way to interrogate our moral capacity is not by asking questions about politics or other high-level social concepts, as these recruit more cognitive activity than we are interested in. Rather, we seek to clear up the distortions that cloud the moral capacity by pinpointing moral judgments made in suitably reflective conditions. Hot takes and emotionally charged judgments will not suffice.

However, the best way to clear up these distortions cannot be to withdraw into abstract reflection. Instead, through argument and disagreement, discourse between sufficiently diverse individuals recruits this cognitive mechanism in navigating disputes and settling as many tensions as possible. The resultant agreement will, ideally, give observers the clearest view into the moral capacity’s central properties as can reasonably be expected.

While far from ideal, the drafting of the UDHR took on this character. In a reassessment of the debates that drove its drafting, Joe Hoover recalled that “one is struck by how long the drafters spent suggesting, debating, and revising individual articles.” Indeed, in her study of the drafting process, Mary Ann Glendon noted: “It is unlikely that any other political document in history has ever drawn from such diverse sources, or received the same worldwide, sustained considerations and scrutiny as the Declaration underwent over its two years of preparation.”

These debates were largely sincere. According to Micheline Ishay: “Despite philosophical and political rivalries between these great minds [Peng Chun Chang, Charles Malik, and René Cassin], each human rights commissioner understood what was at stake, and all responded to their historical call by transcending personal and philosophical differences.” These individuals, among others like Eleanor Roosevelt and remarkable participation from sprawling groups and individuals, leveraged the “brief time” of relative goodwill between the United States and the USSR following World War II to draft the document.

What emerged from these debates is a “highly specific list of fundamental human rights.” As legal scholar Michael Perry observed, the contents of the UDHR “represent values—that is, valued states of affairs—to be achieved.” The mere existence of this list of fundamental human rights is, in Mikhail’s view, “remarkable” and indicates that morality is more constrained by the human mind than is commonly believed. Given this cognitive constraint, the agreement resulting from the drafting process—embodied by the eventual UDHR taken up in 1948—has an overlooked conceptual significance.

The beauty of this research program is simple but counterintuitive: Universal Moral Grammar does not deny the existence of moral diversity but “is largely predicted on the existence of diversity and is directed to understanding and explaining it…The key concept…is constrained diversity.” From this constrained diversity, and through an intentional hammering out of moral problems, the conceptual significance emerges of the UDHR as a document capturing—more clearly than any other—our moral nature.

Universal Human Rights in a Conflicted World

The UDHR’s seventy-fifth anniversary will occur in a conflicted world. Yet, even after seven decades of marking this document’s unlikely creation, its significance to human nature has been severely underappreciated.

To be sure, scholarly studies of the UDHR focusing on the anti-colonial movements of the first half of the twentieth century and the collapse of empires, the ideational influences stretching back decades or centuries through political activism and religious traditions, the re-definition of “human” in the early twentieth century, and the distribution of power across states each have their places.

Yet, these approaches neglect a simple but urgent question: how on earth do individuals make the moral judgments that underpin the rights enshrined within the UDHR? The failure to ask this question across a broad range of disciplinary traditions—and the implicit failure to recognize that this is a question not of political science but of cognitive science—has led to the UDHR’s underappreciated status.

There is no contradiction, to be sure, between the realist idea that the world is anarchic, populated by self-interested states, and lacking—at least in prominent variants—anything that can plausibly be called a “rules-based order” and the idea that human moral cognition provides the basis for—and is best represented by—universal human rights norms as enshrined in the UDHR. The problem is that too many International Relations scholars have implicitly subsumed a psychology of moral judgment into their theories, thereby conflating a lack of compliance with international human rights law with the intellectual foundations of human rights.

The fact is that assumptions about human nature matter for how we understand human rights. Human rights activism that detaches itself from human nature, especially in liberal-democratic societies, may hamper itself. The key is to realize that none of what has been said here must be surprising if one adopts a cognitive science perspective—one simply needs to be willing to recognize that moral or cultural diversity is not the silver bullet against the idea of universal human rights that they think it is.

Echoing Matthias Mahlmann’s conclusion based on his recent major contribution to moral cognition and human rights, to think of human rights as spontaneous beliefs that must be supported everywhere, at all times, to hold weight is a mistake. Human rights result from humanity’s struggle with social organization and represent the clearest view of our innate moral capacity and its social manifestations. The implementation and maintenance of universal human rights take work. The UDHR and International human rights norms have always existed in a conflicted world—now is the time to understand why.

Vincent J. Carchidi is an analyst working in technology, defense, and international affairs. He has an interdisciplinary background in cognitive science and philosophy. His work has appeared in outlets including the Human Rights Review, AI & Society, War on the Rocks, Defense One, National Interest, The Geopolitics Magazine, and Military Strategy Magazine, among others. 

Image: FDR Library and Museum.