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.

“Nigel Biggar, What’s Wrong with Rights?”

David Little
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…”

“Biggar and the Kind of Human Dignity that Remains”

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….”

“Theological Critiques of WWWR: A Reply to Little & Herdt”

Nigel Biggar
April 14, 2021

“Before I attend to David Little’s main challenge, let me nuance one statement he makes, to avoid any misunderstanding about a highly combustible issue. He writes that I dissent from “the belief in absolute and universal subjective natural or human rights, like the prohibition of torture.” This is not incorrect, but it could mislead….”

“Radicalizing Biggar’s ‘What’s Wrong with Rights?’”

Joel Harrison
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….”

“On the Division of Rights”

John Milbank
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….”

“Ethical Critiques of WWWR: A Reply to Milbank & Harrison”

Nigel Biggar
April 15, 2021

“I fear that I will not be able to do John Milbank’s essay justice, since I have failed to achieve a firm grasp of what he is saying. It seems that I define “right” in “too modern and liberal a way,” contrasting natural and constitutional rights. This approximates me to a current of modern Anglo-Saxon “‘liberal conservative’ thought” that identifies legality with political custom — except that I “clearly [do] not take this view,” seeing civil legislation as subject to the dictates of morality…”

“Is Nigel Biggar’s ‘What’s Wrong with Rights?’ sufficiently realistic?”

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…..”

“Nigel Biggar, What’s Wrong With Rights?”

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…”

“Legal Critiques of WWWR: A Reply to Napel & Hill QC”

Nigel Biggar
April 16, 2021

“Hans-Martien ten Napel approves of my lodging the concept of rights in the larger context of natural law or morality, since it restrains the popular and judicial proliferation of the individual’s rights. However, he doubts that the modern world, having abandoned the idea of objective (natural) morality in the 1960s, can be persuaded back into recovering it…”

“From Bentham to Biggar: Skepticism about Rights Skepticism”

John Witte, Jr.
June 11, 2021

“Half a century ago, the world welcomed some of the most remarkable human rights documents it had ever seen. The United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These were America’s strongest statutory rebukes to its long and tragic history of racism, chauvinism, nativism, and religious and cultural bigotry…”

“John Witte, Jr.’s Critique of WWWR: A Reply”

Nigel Biggar
October 11, 2021

John spends the first forty percent (or thereabouts) of his critique recounting the story of the worldwide ascendancy of rights after 1945, their effectiveness in securing justice (not least in 1960s America), and the power of their proliferation in enabling “jurists to map in ever greater detail the proper interactions between private parties in society and between private parties and the reigning authorities”. His purpose here is not explained, but its effect is to…