What’s Wrong with Rights?
A Canopy Forum Thematic Series
January – February 2021
In his recent book, “What’s Wrong with Rights,” Oxford Theologian Nigel Biggar, offers a trenchant critique of some of the ways we tend to think and talk about rights while also offering a more limited sense in which “rights-talk” makes more sense. Biggar argues that we ought not talk about rights without seriously discussing corresponding duties on others to insure such rights are satisfied; that conceptualizations of rights must be contextualized in current circumstances; that expressing rights at high levels of abstraction gives courts too much discretion to determine the scope of rights in hard cases; and that a focus on rights in general undermines important moral dimensions of conduct, such as the question of whether it is right to exercise a right.
In this series, a panoply of prominent rights scholars engage Biggar’s thesis and arguments from a range of religious, political, legal, and philosophical perspectives. The limits of “rights-talk” has been long recognized in many circles, reflecting a degree of backlash against the robust (in theory, if not always in practice) international human rights regime that has developed since the Second World War. The dangers and realities of serious rights abuses encourage many to emphasize human rights doctrines, but there is much to be said about what is risked by that discourse–and what is at stake in too easily discarding it.
January 20, 2021
“Despite the title, Nigel Biggar’s main objective, in this stimulating but debatable book, is not to discredit rights language entirely. He is perfectly content to support the value of a subjective legal right, which depends on the existence of the institutions of government…”
January 21, 2021
“In his book What’s Wrong with Rights?, Nigel Biggar argues that “the task is actually not to jettison talk about subjective rights, but rather to save it by re-setting it in a larger framework of objective right” (142). In Biggar’s view, advocates, activists, scholars, and, most problematically, judges claim that rights are natural….”
Jennifer A. Herdt
January 22, 2021
“Nigel Biggar is essentially right about rights. They are indeed paradigmatically legal. They are indeed conditional and limited. And it is indeed the case that they can neither be justly defined nor respected without attention to circumstances or without the virtues that enable agents properly to attend to the relevant circumstances….”
Hans-Martien ten Napel
February 2, 2021
“What’s Wrong with Rights is a superb book. If there is one subject that lends itself to interdisciplinary research, it is that of human rights. To the extent that lawyers have ever been able to claim a monopoly, those days are now well behind us. In this book, Nigel Biggar makes a fundamental contribution from a theological point of view, which lawyers are well-advised to take to heart…..”
Mark Hill QC
February 9, 2021
“Nigel Biggar’s publications are predictable, but never uninteresting: predictable in that he is unashamedly a conservative moral philosopher who self-defines as a professional Christian ethicist, a description which seems to imply that mere amateurs, myself included, function with a less well-developed moral compass, or perhaps without one at all. His new book What’s Wrong With Rights? does not disappoint…”
February 24, 2021
“Contemporary discussions of rights tend to be about where to place a caesura between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of rights. This caesura is primarily a matter of valuation, but it can also be one of historical narration: at a certain point in past time, a barrier between the acceptable and the unacceptable was crossed. For this reason, debates about the philosophy and the history of rights-talk have become complexly interwoven….”