Journal Article

A hypothetical neurological association between dehumanization and human rights abuses

Gail B. Murrow and Richard Murrow

in Journal of Law and the Biosciences

Published on behalf of Harvard University Law School

Volume 2, issue 2, pages 336-364
Published in print July 2015 |
Published online June 2015 | e-ISSN: 2053-9711 | DOI:

More Like This

Show all results sharing these subjects:

  • Medical and Healthcare Law
  • Bioethics


Show Summary Details


Dehumanization is anecdotally and historically associated with reduced empathy for the pain of dehumanized individuals and groups and with psychological and legal denial of their human rights and extreme violence against them. We hypothesize that ‘empathy’ for the pain and suffering of dehumanized social groups is automatically reduced because, as the research we review suggests, an individual's neural mechanisms of pain empathy best respond to (or produce empathy for) the pain of people whom the individual automatically or implicitly associates with her or his own species. This theory has implications for the philosophical conception of ‘human’ and of ‘legal personhood’ in human rights jurisprudence. It further has implications for First Amendment free speech jurisprudence, including the doctrine of ‘corporate personhood’ and consideration of the potential harm caused by dehumanizing hate speech. We suggest that the new, social neuroscience of empathy provides evidence that both the vagaries of the legal definition or legal fiction of ‘personhood’ and hate speech that explicitly and implicitly dehumanizes may (in their respective capacities to artificially humanize or dehumanize) manipulate the neural mechanisms of pain empathy in ways that could pose more of a true threat to human rights and rights-based democracy than previously appreciated.

Keywords: dehumanization; empathy; hate speech; neuroscience; rights

Journal Article.  14879 words. 

Subjects: Medical and Healthcare Law ; Bioethics

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content. subscribe or login to access all content.