Mind and Rights – Why Human Rights Have Deep Roots in Human Psychology, History, Ethics, and Law

Event date
8 February 2022
Event time
12:30 - 13:45
Oxford week
HT 4
Zoom Webinar
Professor Matthias Mahlmann; Professor John Mikhail

Notes & Changes

This event will run as a Zoom webinar. To attend, register here. Please note that this event may be recorded, with the exception of any live audience questions

The talk has two main aims:

First, it will discuss some of the main current attacks on the idea of human rights. These attacks stem from history, normative theory, human psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. The scientific and political background of these critiques is heterogeneous, but all threaten to undermine human rights as ethical concepts, political projects, and legal institutions. The talk will try to show that none of these attacks delegitimizes the project of human rights.Second, it will try to argue, that a sufficiently complex account of the history of this idea’s slow growth, of its normative theory and - importantly – of its roots in human moral cognition only strengthens the case for human rights. There is much reason to criticize current ethical conceptions, the political practice, and the constitutional, supranational, and international law of human rights, but no good reason to abandon disenchanted this quite noble idea.The talk is based on Professor Mahlmann's forthcoming book Mind and Rights. Why Human Rights have Deep Roots in Human Psychology, History, Ethics, and Law, to be published with Cambridge University Press this year.

Alt Text


Matthias Mahlmann, University Professor, Chair of Philosophy and Theory of Law, Legal Sociology and International Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Zurich, Switzerland. Since 2005 Recurrent Visiting Professor, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Visiting professorships at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2007, 2016; Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C., 2012; BOK Visiting International Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Philadelphia 2017; since 2018 German-Turkish University, Istanbul.

Research interests: international public law; (comparative) constitutional law; moral and legal philosophy; legal sociology; law, psychology and neuroscience; law and literature.

Legal consultancy and (constitutional) litigation in the fields of international human rights law, constitutional law, public law and European law, predominantly for various public bodies, including the Swiss Federal Government, the Swiss Parliament, the German Parliament and the Commission of the European Union. Current president of the world organization of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (IVR).

While in residence at the Bonavero Institute, he plans to complete a forthcoming book on the justification and epistemology of the human rights idea. The project critically engages with various current historical, theoretical and psychological forms of human rights scepticism and revisionism that add to the many foes the law and politics of human rights have to face today.

It draws among others on his articles: Mind and Rights: Neuroscience, Philosophy, and the Foundations of Legal Justice, in: M.N.S. Sellers (ed.), Law, Reason, and Emotion, Cam-bridge University Press, 2017, pp. 80 – 137; Normative Universalism and Constitutional Pluralism, in: I. Motoc/P. Pinto de Albuquerque/K. Wojtyczek (eds.), New Developments in Constitutional Law, Eleven, 2018, pp. 271 – 295; One Step Too Far. Some Philosophical and Political Reflections on the Current Critique of Human Rights, in: A. Sajó/R. Uitz (eds.), Critical Essays on Human Rights, Eleven, 2020, pp. 67 – 80. For philosophical background cf. his forthcoming book: The Justice of Autonomy.

Matthias Mahlmann has also been appointed as Visiting Fellow of Mansfield College during his visit to Oxford.


Alt Text

John Mikhail is the Carroll Professor of Jurisprudence at Georgetown University Law Center, where he has taught since 2004.  He teaches and writes on a variety of topics, including constitutional law, moral psychology, moral and legal theory, cognitive science, legal history, criminal law, torts, international law, and human rights. Professor Mikhail is the author of Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment (CUP, 2011; paperback edition, 2013) and over forty articles, essays, and chapters in peer-edited journals, law reviews, and anthologies.  His scholarship is widely cited, and he has lectured extensively throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Professor Mikhail delivered a Green College Lecture at the University of British Columbia in 2012, the Rousseau Lectures at the University of Zurich in 2017, the Seegers Lecture at Valparaiso University in 2018, and a Plenary Lecture at the IVR World Congress in 2019.  He received his B.A. from Amherst College, a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cornell University, and his J.D. from Stanford Law School, where he was Senior Article Editor of the Stanford Law Review.  After law school, he clerked for Judge Rosemary Barkett on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Professor Mikhail served as Associate Dean for Research and Academic Programs from 2017 to 2020 and Associate Dean for International and Transnational Programs from 2011 to 2013.  He holds secondary appointments in Georgetown’s Philosophy Department and Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science.


Alt text

Shreya Atrey is an Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the Department for Continuing Education and the Faculty of Law, based at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights. She is an Editor for the Human Rights Law Review and an Official Fellow of Kellogg College. Her research is on discrimination law, feminist theory, poverty and disability law. Her monograph, Intersectional Discrimination (OUP 2019), which won the runners-up Peter Birks Book Prize in 2020, presents an account of intersectionality theory in comparative discrimination law. Shreya is currently working on project on 'Equality Law in Times in Crisis' funded by the British Academy. Previously, Shreya was based at the University of Bristol Law School as a Lecturer in Law. She was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence and a Hauser Postdoctoral Global Fellow at the NYU School of Law, New York. She completed BCL with distinction and DPhil in Law on the Rhodes Scholarship from Magdalen College, University of Oxford.

Found within

Human Rights Law