What’s Wrong with Rights?

Are natural rights ‘nonsense on stilts’?


Are natural rights ‘nonsense on stilts’, as Jeremy Bentham memorably put it? Must the very notion of a right be individualistic, subverting the common good? Should the right against torture be absolute, even though the heavens fall? Are human rights universal or merely expressions of Western neo-imperial arrogance? Are rights ethically fundamental, proudly impervious to changing circumstances? Should judges strive to extend the reach of rights from civil Hamburg to anarchical Basra? Should judicial oligarchies, rather than legislatures, decide controversial ethical issues by inventing novel rights? Ought human rights advocates learn greater sympathy for the dilemmas facing those burdened with government?

These are the questions that What’s Wrong with Rights? addresses. In doing so, it draws upon resources in intellectual history, legal philosophy, moral philosophy, moral theology, human rights literature, and the judgments of courts. It ranges from debates about property in medieval Christendom, through Confucian rights-scepticism, to contemporary discussions about the remedy for global hunger and the justification of killing. And it straddles assisted dying in Canada, the military occupation of Iraq, and genocide in Rwanda.

What’s Wrong with Rights? concludes that much contemporary rights-talk obscures the importance of fostering civic virtue, corrodes military effectiveness, subverts the democratic legitimacy of law, proliferates publicly onerous rights, and undermines their authority and credibility. The solution to these problems lies in the abandonment of rights-fundamentalism and the recovery of a richer public discourse about ethics, one that includes talk about the duty and virtue of rights-holders.


‘Courageous … What’s Wrong With Rights? is a rich and challenging book. Not everyone will agree with Biggar’s views, but anyone writing about human rights who wishes to be taken seriously will need to engage with his arguments.’

Jonathan Sumption, The Times

With the noble post-World War II human rights project increasingly imperiled by misunderstanding and manipulation, Nigel Biggar’s new book is a major contribution to clear thinking about what we mean when we speak of rights. Whether or not they agree with his conclusions, friends of human rights everywhere should welcome this timely and informative analysis of what’s wrong with rights and what needs to be done to put them right

Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard University