Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Reader 1

Piercarlo Valdesolo

Reader 2

Wendy Lower

Rights Information

© 2016 Anoush Baghdassarian


The idea that there are universal human rights that can, and should, be enforced has been an increasingly wide-spread and popular belief, as well as a controversial one. Concerns of cultural relativism contrasted with stances of universalism spark an impassioned debate that permeates the dialogue of human rights today in all spheres: social, academic, and even those professional spheres that are tasked with creating and enforcing the laws regarding these issues. What does psychology have to say about this? After all, if it is a universal phenomenon, it must span across time, culture, and difference, and there must be trends in our human nature or similarities in our psychology that allow us to claim universality. One psychological theory, the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) can help shed light on this issue. MFT holds that universally, as human beings, we share five grounds of moral foundations on which we make our judgments and take action: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Authority/Submissiveness, Sanctity/Degradation, and Loyalty/Betrayal. While we are all born with the capability to act and reason on these, our cultures shape us to emphasize different foundations and it is in that shift that conflict arises. What one group sees as right, and based in moral justification, another sees as wrong and as a violation of human rights. This paper attempts to use MFT to understand the moral foundations underlying three case studies of practices internationally seen as human rights abuses, female genital modification, child marriage, and male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, and provides suggestions for methods of effective intervention based in MFT.