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Law & Ethics of Human Rights

Editor-in-Chief: Stopler, Gila

Editorial Board: Benvenisti, Eyal / Cohen-Eliya, Moshe / Macedo, Stephen / Rosenblum, Nancy

CiteScore 2017: 0.16

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 0.195
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 0.140

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Volume 9, Issue 1

This Is Your Brain on Human Rights: Moral Enhancement and Human Rights

I. Glenn Cohen
  • Corresponding author
  • Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA, USA
  • Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Cambridge, MA, USA
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Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lehr-2015-0001


It seems fair to say that human rights law takes the human as given. Human beings are particular kinds of entities with particular kinds of psychologies and propensities, and it is the job of human rights law and human rights enforcement to govern that kind of entity, be it through sanctions, education, incentives, or other mechanisms. More specifically, human rights law takes human brains as given. If humans were different kinds of beings, both the mechanisms of getting compliance and possibly the very rules themselves would be different. The purpose of this essay is to very tentatively start to tie together thinking in neuroscience, bioethics, and human rights law to ask whether human rights law should take the nature of human beings, and more specifically, human brains, as given. I sketch the alternative possibility and examine it from a normative and (to a lesser extent) scientific perspective: instead of merely crafting laws and setting up structures that get human beings such as they are to respect human rights, that the human rights approach should also consider embracing attempts to remake human beings (and more specifically human brains) into the kinds of things that are more respectful of human rights law. This is currently science fiction, but there is some scientific evidence that moral enhancement may one day be possible. I call the alternative “moral enhancement to respect human rights law.” To put the aim of the essay in its mildest form it is to answer the following question: if it becomes possible to use enhancement to increase respect for human rights and fidelity to human rights law (whatever you think is constitutive of those categories), and in particular in a way that reduces serious human rights violations, is it worth “looking into?” Or, by contrast, are the immediate objections to such an endeavor so powerful or hard to refute that going in this direction should be forbidden.

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Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: The Law & Ethics of Human Rights, Volume 9, Issue 1, Pages 1–41, ISSN (Online) 1938-2545, ISSN (Print) 2194-6531, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lehr-2015-0001.

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