Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why universal human rights aren't universal

Jean Piaget (1896-1980). A renowned Swiss psychologist, he argued that moral development is linked to cognitive development.

Are intelligence and morality interlinked? This was what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concluded from his studies of child development. With increasing age, children develop not only intellectually but also morally, growing out of infantile self-centredness and into adult decentered-ness:

According to Piaget, moral development — the ability to judge ethical problems in an impartial and unbiased way — relies on prior cognitive development. Indeed, cognitive and moral development are structurally similar. In both is acquired a well-founded, reasonable structure. As Jean Piaget (1948/1932, p. 404) stated: "Parallelism exists between moral and intellectual development: ... Logic is the morality of thought just as morality is the logic of action." And this parallelism is based on the cognitive nature of morality, e.g. to behave ethically one has to take the perspective of third parties. (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 32)

This view has become popular and is even central to much of present-day thinking. If people are better educated, they will presumably become not only smarter but also more empathic and, thus, more considerate of their fellow humans. This view, as popular as it is, doesn't seem quite true. Many of us have known people who are intelligent and yet lacking in empathy. We call them psychopaths. Usually, they're explained away as aberrations. They're sick, aren't they? In reality, the line between 'normal' and 'psychopath' is arbitrary—like most mental traits, the capacity for empathy is distributed continuously along a bell curve. Lots of seemingly normal people have little empathy.

Nor does Piaget's view seem true if we look farther afield. Many moral systems attach little importance to empathy. Indeed, of all the world religions, Christianity seems unique in advocating the moral duty not only to help others but also to feel their pain, even when they aren't fellow Christians. Yes, most Christians fail to meet this standard of universal selflessness, but other religions don't set the bar so high. 

Indeed, the ideal of universal selflessness isn’t at all universal. It developed essentially within a single cultural context, the Christian world:

In Judaism and Christianity, "God created man in his own image" (Gen1:27 ESV). Humans being the image of God, "God-likeness", implies treating humans in a respectful way. Of course, at first blush, history reveals large discrepancies between the message of Christianity and the actual behavior of Christians. However, this does not mean that such behavior was consistent with the Christian message, and in many cases it was criticized by prominent Christians at the time. The Christian message had a corrective function. For instance, the inhumane treatment of American Indians by Spanish colonists was criticized by the Dominican priest Bartholomé de Las Casas (as mentioned above). The abolitionist movement was organized by Protestants and led by the Evangelical Christian William Wilberforce. The horrors of war were mitigated by charities such as the Red Cross, which was founded by the evangelical Christian, Henry Dunant. (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 34)

The Muslim world imported as many slaves as did the Christian world, yet a Muslim abolitionist movement never arose, and the trade was ultimately abolished worldwide through the intervention of Christian nations, particularly Great Britain. Today, the slave trade has left no legacy of guilt among Muslims, while it definitely has in those nations that strove to bring it to an end.

This apparent paradox has led Heiner Rindermann—a well-known psychologist in HBD circles—to challenge the Piagetian idea that moral development is linked to intellectual development. These two mental traits are distinct and have followed their own trajectories in different moral traditions.

To prove his point, he teamed up with sociologist Noah Carl to study how respect for human rights is related, cross-culturally, to cognitive ability and religion. They found a stronger relationship with religion than with cognitive ability. Specifically, the percentage of Christians in a society had a stronger positive impact (r = .62) on respect for human rights (Rindermann and Carl 2018) than did educational level (r = .54) or cognitive ability (r = .50 to .51).

One can quibble about the methodology. The study defines human rights largely as the right to make choices on one's own, regardless of existing social norms. Freedom of religion, for instance, is defined as the freedom not only to practice one's religion but also to convert to another. As the authors themselves note, this is not a legitimate freedom in much of the world, unless one is converting to the majority religion. Freedom doesn’t mean that a minority is free to become the majority.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a correlation between Christianity and respect for human rights as long as we define the latter, at least in part, as maximization of personal choice and autonomy. 

Is Christianity confounded with European ancestry?

Correlation isn't causation. Couldn't Christianity be a proxy for "European-ness"? Indeed, most Christians are at least partly of European ancestry, and even more live in societies founded and still largely run by people of European origin.

To control for this confounding factor, one could compare Christian and non-Christian societies within a region where European ancestry is minimal. Sub-Saharan Africa comes to mind. Even in South Africa, the European minority is down to the single digits.

Rindermann and Carl (2018, p. 60) did make that comparison:

Within sub-Saharan Africa [...] the percentage of Christians is still positively (but weakly) related to human rights (r = .10; N = 48), and the percentage of Muslims is still negatively (but weakly) related to human rights (r = -.12).

Those correlations are indeed weak. Moreover, the one between Christianity and respect for human rights is largely due to the relatively stable societies of southern Africa, i.e., South Africa itself, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Those societies enjoy a judicial and administrative legacy that may not last much longer, given recent events and the example of Zimbabwe.

To be honest, I feel little in common with fellow Christians like Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe. Ironically, both of them have a better claim to being Christian than I do, since I refused to be confirmed after attending my confirmation classes.

Is European ancestry confounded with a genetically influenced trait?

If European ancestry is a confounding factor, could it be a proxy for some unknown genetically influenced trait? Rindermann and Carl tried to answer this question by estimating the average "skin brightness" of each country.

Skin brightness is more highly correlated with human rights than is cranial capacity (r = .25 vs. .18). Of course, skin color itself is unlikely to exert any effect; it constitutes a marker for evolutionary pressures that may be associated with culture. (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 53)

This is, I suspect, a reference to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and his belief that humans had to become more intelligent as they spread into harsher northern climates: "those tribes that emigrated early to the north, and there gradually became white, had to develop all their intellectual powers, and invent and perfect all the arts in their struggle with need, want, and misery, which, in their many forms, were brought about by the climate. This they had to do in order to make up for the parsimony of nature, and out of it all came their high civilization" Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II, Section 92.

Rindermann and Carl seem to be assuming that European skin became white solely as an adaptation to the northern natural environment. They also seem to be assuming that moral development is linked to cognitive development—the very hypothesis they want to test.

A better genetic marker would be the long allele for the 5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter gene. It's less frequent in collectivistic cultures than in individualistic cultures, the latter being the cultures of western and northern Europe—the same cultures that value so much the rights of the individual (Chiao and Blizinsky 2010). In a study of American toddlers, carriers of the short allele were more likely to imitate the way other people behaved (Schroeder et al. 2016).

The study provides additional evidence for the view that Christianity, in itself, doesn't explain why Europeans, and especially northwest Europeans, see all individuals as being endowed with the same rights. Of the three branches of Christianity, Protestantism has the strongest correlation with respect for human rights (r = .48), followed by Catholicism (r = .42), and finally Orthodoxy (r = -.07) (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 52). This suggests that Christianity changed as its geocenter progressively moved from the Middle East to southern Europe and then to northwest Europe, along the way becoming more focused on the individual and on individual responsibility. 

Within Christianity, Protestantism stresses conscience, individual guilt, internal control, autonomy and self-responsibility (Weber, 2008/1904). All these traits are conducive for liberty, the rule of law, democracy and human rights (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 34)

[...] in Protestant countries, trust is higher, corruption is lower and levels of social and economic freedom are higher (Delhey & Newton, 2005; Harrison, 2013). People tend to be more self-controlled, having internalized social rules, meaning that harsh and violent control by the state is not needed. (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 37)

The two authors are aware of the Hajnal Line and its relationship to a suite of psychological and behavioral traits. In societies north and west of a line running approximately from Trieste to St. Petersburg, social relations have long shown a certain pattern:

- men and women marry relatively late

- many people never marry

- children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households

- households often have non-kin members

This is the Western European Marriage Pattern (WEMP). Everyone is single for at least part of adulthood, many stay single their entire lives, and a significant proportion of households have members not belonging to the immediate family or even to kin. In short, an individual is less fettered by the bonds of kinship even within his or her household (Frost 2017).

This led to late marriage, high rates of childlessness (of about half of the cohort), more rights for women, and large investments in education. Going further than Hajnal himself did, it arguably also enhanced delay of gratification, self-control (especially of sexuality), conscientiousness, frugality, industry and cognitive ability. The causes of this marriage pattern can be traced to Roman, Germanic and Christian traditions, to the interests of the church, and to the interests of landlords and guilds. (Rindermann and Carl 2018, p. 39)

The above view is also the one held by *hbd chick, i.e., the WEMP developed after the introduction of Christianity and was, at least in part, a consequence of medieval Christian practices and institutions. Yet there is good evidence for the existence of the WEMP as early as ninth-century France and fragmentary evidence even earlier (Frost 2017). I have argued that the arrow of causality points in the other direction: a pre-existing mindset in northwest Europe was carried over into Christianity, much like the Christmas tree and other pagan traditions. Later, as the center of Christendom moved west and north, this mindset gained importance within Western Christianity and pushed it more and more toward the idea of individual salvation and an individual relationship with God. 

The northwest European mindset is characterized essentially by four interrelated mental traits:

Independent social orientation - independence of the self from others, including stronger motivation toward self-expression, self-esteem, and self-efficacy and emphasis on personal happiness rather than social happiness. 

Universal rule adherence - capacity to obey universal and absolute moral rules, i.e., moral universalism and moral absolutism, as opposed to situational morality based on kinship. These rules are enforced by monitoring not only others but also oneself. Rule-breakers may be branded as morally worthless and expelled.

Affective empathy - capacity to experience the emotional states of other people in order to prevent harm and to provide help if needed. Help is conditional on the other person being judged morally worthy.

Guilt proneness - capacity to self-monitor thoughts and behavior for rule adherence in order to self-judge and, if necessary, to self-punish.


Are universal human rights truly universal? If we look at cultures across space and time, we find that the notion of human rights was nonexistent in most cultures and historical periods. Not until the 18th and 19th centuries did some countries codify this notion in law, although it clearly has antecedents that go farther back, at least to the formulation of canon law by the Catholic Church and perhaps farther. Northwest Europeans seem to have long been predisposed to think in terms of individual rights and universal moral rules.

Since the early 19th century, we in the West have tried to impose these rights on the entire world, initially through the suppression of the slave trade and then through the efforts of missionaries and colonial authorities to ban certain practices, like the custom of sati in India. Such efforts became an integral part of Western imperialism and "the white man's burden."

Although this burden has since been taken up by truly international bodies, like the U.N., the notion of universal human rights still reflects a Western view of people as atomized individuals who mainly seek to maximize their wealth, happiness, and personal autonomy. This is not how most humans view the purpose of existence. For that matter, this view was not originally held by northwest Europeans, whose understanding of moral universalism has steadily radicalized and expanded in scope over time.


Chiao, J.Y. and Blizinsky, K.D. (2010). Culture-gene coevolution of individualism-collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277: 529-537.

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe, Advances in Anthropology 7: 154-174.

Rindermann, H. and N. Carl. (2018). Human rights: Why countries differ, Comparative Sociology 17: 29-69.

Schopenhauer, A. (1974)[1851]. Parerga and Paralipomena, English translation by E. F. J. Payne, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2 volumes.

Schroeder, K.B., Asherson, P., Blake, P.R., Fenstermacher, S.K., and Saudino, K.J. (2016). Variant at serotonin transporter gene predicts increased imitation in toddlers: relevance to the human capacity for cumulative culture. Biology Letters 12(4).


luke said...

An interesting fact about this is that while NW Euros are the most individualist in terms of values, they are not the most individualistic in terms of personality and character (selfishness,sociopathy,egoism,etc.) if one compares different races and ethnic groups. NW Euros have lower levels of dark triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism, sadism, etc) than Middle Easterners, Southern Europeans, Latinos and Blacks.

Sean said...

I don't think intelligence is orthogonal to malevolence, I would take high intelligence as an admittedly imperfect though still worthwhile indication of trustworthiness. The origin of NW European mental traits lying very far back possibly in selection among coastal Mesolithic peoples is what I think you are arguing. No room for Indo Europeans or Gimbutas's theories? In individuals I can see how the person who is obviously trustworthy because they have those NWE traits could be valuable in any enterprise and the first commercial state was Holland, followed by England. However, England found itself at war with fellow Puritan state Holland over commercial supremacy. One should not expect that countries behave in line with individual morality, unless that converges with the dictates of power politics. I think universal human rights function internationally to alter or preserve the balance of power. Britain used anti slavery laws to interfere with French and American commence and reduce the prestige of their systems. Britain opposed antisemitism while interfering in Russian interests in the Balkan counties freed from the Ottomans. Edmund Burke had more influence on state policy in relation to opposing Revolutionary France that he did when he tried to ameliorate the plight of Indians under British commercial colonialism.

Anonymous said...

The origin of NW European mental traits lying very far back possibly in selection among coastal Mesolithic peoples is what I think you are arguing. No room for Indo Europeans or Gimbutas's theories?

If I'm not mistaken, Peter rejects the idea of demographic replacement or significant impact by the Indo Europeans in NW Europe.

However, England found itself at war with fellow Puritan state Holland over commercial supremacy. One should not expect that countries behave in line with individual morality, unless that converges with the dictates of power politics.

Also commercializing Protestant England had privateering, which was state sanctioned theft. It wasn't just state sanctioned but socially approved and prestigious, and privateers were some of the wealthiest and most famous men of their day.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to compare Far Eastern (f.ex. japanese and chinese) christians to their countrymen and to the western christians.

Anonymous said...

Yes, most Christians fail to meet this standard of universal selflessness, but other religions don't set the bar so high.

What about jihadists and suicide bombers? Few Christians today seem willing to risk or sacrifice their lives.

luke said...


They sacrifice themselves for Islam, NOT humanity in general.

Anonymous said...

luke jones,

Islam is a universal religion for all of humanity. Obviously they believe the cause of Islam for humanity in general.

luke said...


Then explain the tribalism, psychopathy and mafia behavior common throughout the Muslim world. Islam is only universal in the sense of being non-ethnic like Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. They don't believe in human rights, neither do other people except NW Euros and their dispora.

Anonymous said...

Now I'm not going to deny genetic differences between human races, nor cultural differences between Northern Europeans and Moslem Southern/Eastern Mediterraneans. But denying they are moral universalists, is rubbish.