What’s Wrong with Rights? by Nigel Biggar - review by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff

When Virtue is Not Enough

What’s Wrong with Rights?


Oxford University Press 362pp £30

There’s plenty wrong with rights, Nigel Biggar tells us, as some very powerful thinkers have been saying since the ‘rights of man and of the citizen’ first entered the lexicon of mass democratic politics during the French Revolution. This sceptical tradition has been particularly strong in Britain, a country that likes to think it invented rights at Runnymede. It runs from Edmund Burke, through Jeremy Bentham (who called natural rights ‘nonsense on stilts’) right up to contemporary figures like Jonathan Sumption, a former justice of the UK Supreme Court, and the philosopher Onora O’Neill.

Biggar, a professor of theology and ethics at Oxford University, gives us a powerfully reasoned intellectual history of the sceptical tradition from the 1780s to the present day. He’s a discriminating guide rather than an anti-rights ideologist, and his analysis of these traditions is intricate, exacting and fair. While clearly Christian in his perspective, he keeps claims from authority, especially divine authority, firmly in their place.

He is supportive of the idea that since human beings are one species, there must be some claims we make upon each other that have universal status. He doesn’t think, in other words, that rights are a Western invention with no purchase elsewhere. His scepticism begins when it comes to

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