Post-truth era: rethinking human nature

The post-truth era bears severe risks for human rights practice, both in the analog and the digital sphere. However, it also reveals a very important fact: humans are much more affect-driven than we assumed; and this has severe consequences for human rights practice.

A large part in human rights work is trying to convince people who reject certain human rights to change their moral bases and to embrace these rights. When we interact with these people we image the other person as a rational human being who can be convinced by good arguments. However, the equation of “moral judgment” and “moral reasoning” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Human nature and the question which natural characteristic humans have in common is a topic that runs like a common thread through the history of humanity. From Aristotle to Kant, the dominant answer to this question was rationality. As Kant postulates, man is „the only rational creature on earth“ (Kant 1963 (originally 1784), p 13). To put it in Richard Rorty’s words: „Traditionally, the name of the shared human attribute that supposedly ‚grounds‘ morality is ‚rationality‘.“ (Rorty 1998, p 171)

The post-truth era brings to light what some scholars already preached for years: our values and moral judgments are mainly driven by intuition or affect and our social environment. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of the main advocates of this view. He developed a model called “social intuitionist model of moral reasoning” (Haidt 2001; Haidt 2013) which is based on two main ideas: First, Haidt clarifies that it is not moral reasoning but intuition which is causing moral judgments. Moral reasoning is only a post hoc construction. The basics of this idea can already be found in David Hume’s work, who states in the 18th century: “[r]eason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passion, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Hume s.a., 127) To illustrate this view Haidt is using the following metaphor:

the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.“ (Haidt 2013, p XXI, emphasis in original)

Second, the moral judgments developed from intuition are not to be set in stone but can be changed by our social environment. Other people’s judgments and their reasoning can change our intuition and our core moral judgments. As Baruch de Spinoza already stated in the 17th century in Ethics IV (Spinoza 2002) humans are “social animals”. Referring again to the metaphor of the “rider and the elephant”, Haidt clarifies: “[…] the bottom line is that when we see or hear about the things other people do, the elephant begins to lean immediately.“ (Haidt 2013, p 83)

To sum up, humans have a social-intuitionist nature. They base their moral judgment mainly on intuition and social influence and not on reason – and this finding has severe consequences for the way we approach people in human rights work.


Haidt, J 2001, ‚The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment‘, Psychological Review, vol. 108, no. 4, pp. 814–834.

Haidt, J 2013, The righteous mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion, Vintage Books, New York.

Hume, D s.a., A treatise of human nature. in two volumes. 2, Dent, London.

Rorty, R 1998, ‚Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality‘ in Truth a


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human rights as attitude objects

Research on attitudes is focussed on physical attitude objects and the like. However, especially against the background of Trump and Brexit, attitudes toward social issues like human rights need to get more attention in research.

What is an attitude?

The most quoted definition of attitude is the one by Alice H. Eagly and Shelly Chaiken defining attitude as „[…] a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor.“ This definition is similar to the common understanding, defining an attitude is a positive or negative predisposition toward an attitude object.

Virtually anything that can be evaluated can serve as an attitude object. This includes concrete objects, abstract concepts, (group of) people, classes of entities, behaviors, policy issues, and so forth. However, an over proportional amount of research on attitude focusses on products, attitude towards concrete objects, and the like. Therefore, Maio & Haddock identify the following challenge: „The challenge is for persuasion researchers to collect more data on applications to social issues […]“! From a social scientist’s perspective these are the relevant attitude objects which will make a difference over time in the society as a whole.

Human rights as attitude objects – the right not to be harmed

I aim at contributing to this underrepresented part of attitude research by focussing on a social issue: the basal moral human right not to be harmed. Why the right not to be harmed? First, as Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his TED Talk from 2008, harm is one of the moral roots people all over the world  agree upon. Second, due to this global agreement, the it can serve as a basal moral right in the sense of an inalienable, universal human right.

By looking at the right not to be harmed as an attitude object, possible strategies how to change a negative attitude toward this right can be examined. I all individuals had a strong and positive attitude toward the right not to be harmed (and behave in accordance with it), the world would be a better place.

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Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Do you also still wonder how Donald Trump was able to win the elections? Jonathan Haidt might have an answer to this question: Even though this TED Talk is already 8 years old – he still hits the mark!

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Course on Human Rights and Global Communication

New semester, new course @European University Viadrina in Frankfurt(Oder), Germany:

Since the Arab Spring the digital shift in the struggle for human rights has become obvious. Global Communication Technologies – mainly social networking sites – were said to have played a key role in the people’s uprising by providing the formerly missing possibility to connect to like-minded people and therefore take a stand for human rights. On the other hand, the World Wide Web has also made it easier to limit and violate human rights. This discrepancy in the perception of risks and opportunities of the web for human rights entails inter alia the following questions: Does the Internet really enable human rights? Which rights – except for the right to freedom of expression – are influenced by the communications revolution? Do we need new human rights in the digital age? Should the right to access to the Internet be recognized as a human right?

Based on introductory sessions about the philosophical and political basis of human rights on the one hand and the structural shift in global communication to “bottom-up” approaches and “mass self-communication” on the other hand, the abovementioned questions will be addressed by discussing latest research results and specific examples. The aim of the seminar is to provide a basic understanding of human rights in general and the influence of global communication on the struggle for human rights in particular.

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John Tasioulas on Human Rights

Check out this great presentation of John Tasioulas about his forthcoming book an human rights from an orthodox respecively moral point of view @Radcliffe Institution – Harvard.


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The state as the addressee of Human Rights

It is common to differentiate between people who have certain rights (possessors) and people who have the duty to ensure these rights (addresses). In the case of human rights, the possessors are the individual human beings and the addresses are states respectively their government. (cf. Nickel 2007; Menke & Pollmann 2007; Wellman 2011)

But is the addressee of human rights really mainly the state? There are two reasons to question this: First, the double role of the state is critical: The state is at the same time the addressee ensuring human rights and the violator of human rights. Second, if it is the state that is guaranteeing human rights there are no guaranteed human rights for stateless people. This is against the basic idea of human rights because, as Seylan Benhabib clarifies, „[…] individuals are rights-bearing not only in virtue of their citizenship within states but, in the first place, in virtue of their humanity.“ (Benhabib 2008, p 97)

Therefore, Carl Wellman puts forward a very important claim:

„[…] I rejected the view that moral human rights are essentially political, that they hold exclusively or primarily against nation-states. I argued that basal moral human rights […] hold primarily against all other persons, whether acting in their private or official capacities.“ (Wellman 2011, p 33)

Consequently, to focus on the moral perspective entails the necessity to understand the individual as both, possessor and addressee of human rights norms. The arguments that are put forward in order to strengthen the idea that the addressee of human rights is the state, are referring to the fact that a lot of articles in human rights declarations do hold directly against states and their governments. But this argument can be turned against itself by referring to the findings already made in the two former paragraphs: The existence of articles that bind states can be understood as another evidence, that these articles belong to the political perspective and do not belong to the moral basis of human rights and the therewith universality. As Wellman (c.f. 2011, pp 25–26) states, these political rights are derived from more fundamental basal rights. For Wellman, these basal moral human rights are “those that stand at the base of the system of moral human rights and from which more specific human rights are derived” (Wellman 2011, p 33). It is exactly this universal basis, which has to be defined and spreaded to improve the state of human rights worldwide.



Benhabib, S 2008, ‚The Legitimacy of Human Rights‘, Daedalus, vol. 137, no. 3, pp. 94-104.

Menke, C & Pollmann, A 2007, Philosophie der Menschenrechte zur Einführung, Junius, Hamburg.

Nickel, JW 2007, Making sense of human rights, Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, Oxford.

Wellman, C 2011, The moral dimensions of human rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

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Rainer Forst – Human Rights and the Right to Justification

By developing the theory “the right to justification” and applying it to human rights, Rainer Forst combines universal and particularistic views by claiming to be universal in theory and still particularistically applicable. (Forst 1999a, p 68) Hereby, he strikes a balance between the two poles of universalism and cultural relativism which dominate the discourse on human rights theory.

First of all, it shall be clarified what the “right to justification” is:

“This basic right to justification is based on the recursive general principle that every norm that is to legitimize the use of force (or, more broadly speaking, a morally relevant interference with other’s actions) claims to be reciprocally and generally valid and therefore needs to be justifiable by reciprocally and generally non-rejectable reasons.” (Forst 2013, p 140)

All norms meant to be enforced, including human rights, have to be reciprocally and generally justifiable. Reciprocity here means that the author must not assert a claim that is denied to others. By generality Forst means that all affected parties of a norm must be able to equally share the reason for the norm in question. (cf. Forst 1999, p 82; Forst 2013, p 140) The criteria of generality is crucial to reject arguments from the cultural relativist side because it implies that a culture has to redefine its norms as soon as the norm is not equally shared by every member of the culture. Consequently, there is no external pressure on cultural change.

Concerning human rights, this means “that human rights are meant to ensure that no human being is treated in a way that could not be justified to him or her as a person equal to others” (Forst 2013, p 39). According to Forst, one has to take as a given that there is only one basic human right: the right to justification. Thereby, this does not mean that the other human rights can be developed from this right – it rather serves as a main guide for the construction of concrete human rights.

“The basic right does not determine from the outset which substantial reasons are adequate, which rights can be demanded, or which institutions or social relationships can be justified. As the universal core of every internal morality, the right to justification leaves this to the members‘ specific cultural or social context.” (Forst 1999b, p 42)

The underlying notion here is that every human being is recognized as a person to whom another person owes a justification of the reasons for their actions. (cf. Forst 1999b, p 44) The only criteria these justifications have to fulfill are reciprocity and generality. These rights shall then be made socially effective in two aspects: Human rights must be a) substantive, meaning here that the formulated rights must express adequate forms of mutual respect, and b) procedural, meaning that everyone who is living under certain rules has to have the possibility to participate in the determination of these rules. (Forst 2013, p 39)

This moral constructivism can lead to an abstract list of human rights – this is why moral constructivism always has to be accompanied by political constructivism, meaning that these rights must also be justifiable in a concrete political order. (cf. Forst 1999b, p 48)

„The right to justification in this legal-political context does not fall prey to Frank Michelman’s reducito ad absurdum according to which any interpretation of human rights would only be legitimate in a state if it could be accepted concurrently in a more or less ‚pure‘ procedure. Rather, it means that in procedures of political justification that exclude no one arbitrarily, no fundamental, reciprocally and generally irrefutable claims are ignored;“ (Forst 1999b, pp 59, note 29)

Concerning the internationalization of this concept, Forst denies the necessity of a “world state”. He rather proclaims that humans – as moral persons and citizens of a state – are “world citizens” who consequently are obliged to not only respect the human rights of others but also to actively support them when they become victims of human rights violations. (cf. Forst 1999b, p 53)

Consequntly, Forst’s approach meets the criteria set by himself: The right to justification is „interculturally non-rejectable, universally valid, and applicable in particular cases“ (Forst 1999b, p 36).


Forst, R 1999a, ‚Das grundlegende Recht auf Rechtfertigung. Zu einer konstruktivistischen Konzeption von Menschenrechten‘ in Recht auf Menschenrechte. Menschenrechte, Demokratie und internationale Politik, eds H Brunkhorst, WR Köhler & M Lutz-Bachmann, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 66–105.

Forst, R 1999b, ‚The Basic Right to Justification: Toward a Constructivist Conception of Human Rights‘, Constellations, vol. 6, no. 1 [01 September 2014].

Forst, R 2013, Justification and critique. Towards a critical theory of politics, Polity, Cambridge.

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Theories of Universal Human Rights and the Individual’s Reality


Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text.

Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. (public domain)

“The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms […]”.



This statement is a part of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most widely accepted declaration of its kind. It clearly proclaims the universality of human rights and it is taking as a given that “every individual” is aware of its universal rights and shall be willing to promote it.

The current scientific debate about the universality of human rights can be structured what I call a horizontal and a vertical dimension. The horizontal dimension is about the different ways one can approach the topic “human rights” from different disciplines. It is threefold, consisting of the moral question about its normative ideals, the political endorsement of a concrete conception of human rights and its legal implementation (including the actual enforcement on the ground). The vertical dimension is concerned with the fundamental question whether human rights are universal or particularistic. All horizontal perspectives of human rights research raise different questions concerning the vertical division between universal and particularistic approaches.

This seems to be a full overview over the possible debates about the universality of human rights. But one main group – if not even the most important group – is often left aside: the people as bearer of human rights. As Christoph Menke and Arnd Pollmann put it: „Even though human rights recognize per definition all human beings as equal, not all humans equally recognize human rights.”

If the UDHR demands to be universal in the way that every individual shall promote respect for these rights and freedoms – as stated in the preamble – the nature, the understanding and the view of each individual has to be focused on much more. Only if everybody is really convinced of the universal idea of human rights, the latter will actually become universal.

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Eleanor Roosevelt: Where do universal human rights begin?

This is what Eleanor Roosevelt answered when she was asked: „Where do universal human rights begin?“: „In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are … Weiterlesen

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Bye, bye values

For the last months I’ve been reading a lot about the research on values in change. What I’ve been looking for was a concept for the reasons for the change of values – but there is hardly anything. Most scholars point to the fact, that there are various reasons for the changes and that one cannot pinn them down.

For my PhD I wanted to point out that digital transcultural communication via Web 2.0 would lead to a change of values – in other words: One reason for changing values must be communication (speeded up by Web 2.0). Due to the fact that there is no answer to the quesiton of reasons for changing values I won’t be able to follow this path anymore. I will leave the debate of values in change aside and concentrate on the debates of universal human rights and the communication revolution triggered by the Internet.

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