Is the theory of natural rights really the best way to protect ourselves from tyrannical governments? This is the big question of Dr. Nigel Biggar’s book, What’s Wrong With Rights? Dr. Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, & Public Life,  University of Oxford. Matt and Alastair push on this argument with Dr. Biggar to examine the relationship between morality and law. Fun connection: Dr. Biggar is Dr. Matt Anderson’s former Ph.D. advisor!

Mere Fidelity is sponsored by Lexham Press, featuring the Mere Fidelity Book of the Month for August, which is also the subject of this episode: Ministers of Reconciliation, edited by Daniel Darling. You can save 40% on this book with the promo code MEREFIDELITYAUG21.

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Big Mere Fidelity News [0:00]

Professor Nigel Biggar [1:27]

Legal Rights vs. Moral Claims [4:07]

Rights Fundamentalism [12:06]

Moral Arguments, Not Rights Assertions [17:59]

Developing the Moral Sense [21:34]

Are morals enough? [29:00]

Institutional Models of Rights and Morals [35:26]

Universality and Absoluteness [43:14]


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Follow DerekAndrew, and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance. Thanks to Timothy Crouch for keeping us organized. Thanks to Tim Motte for sound editing. And thanks to The Joy Eternal for lending us their music, which everybody should download out of gratitude for their kindness.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. The discussion was disappointing. The guest was confusing. For example, without natural rights that define what is owed to a person, what defines natural justice? For when saying how the state should not treat people implies that the state owes a certain treatment of people to others.

    Also, there doesn’t seem to be a significant acknowledgment that governments fail when they mistreat people because they don’t acknowledge that people don’t have natural rights. Without the concept of natural rights or when limiting rights to what the government allows, how could the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s to the 1970s functioned?

    Also, borrowing from MLK, we can say that rights for the individual shows that life is individual. MLK noted how Communism missed that point. But MLK also noted that life is social. And that applies here because our rights can be limited based on how the exercise of them affects others. Recognizing both aspects of life limits the reductionism involved when people focus too heavily on their individual rights.

    Again, the conversation was very disappointing and confusing. Rather than providing some enlightenment on rights, it seemed to end providing a mild endorsement for some levels of authoritarianism.


    1. I agree. I thought that Prof. Bigger’s distinction between “rights” and “justice” needed a lot more unpacking, particularly, if natural rights do not exist, what are the principles that undergird justice? Do the Uighurs have a right not to be imprisoned and sterilized? According to Prof. Bigger, the answer would be, “No,” because that right is not granted them by the state. So why is their condition unjust? To call it so suggests that people SHOULD NOT be forcibly detained without cause or sterilized without their consent. So what is the difference between that statement and declaring those to be natural rights?


      1. Scott,
        I guess one question that is pertinent here is this: Is the state sinning by not granting a particular right to a person?

        Even that question needs further context. For one important issue here concerns the rights that unbelievers have in society as unbelievers. That is, what wrongs do they have the right to do? For example, do they have the right to not believe in God?


  2. Given the critiques y’all are lodging, I’d say the discussion was a great success! We got enough of Prof. Biggar’s view out on the table for people to see how it goes, and the potential problems with it!


    1. So my assumption is that his actual thinking/theory cannot possibly be as inconsistent or illogical as my understanding of it seems to be. So either:

      A. I’ve misunderstood his stated position out of my own lack of attention or intelligence (certainly possible, though it appears I’m not alone),

      B. his stated position is something other than his actual position by reason of the vagaries of real-time spoken dialogue (would have been helpful to try to guide him to clarifying some of these issues),

      C. or what I (and Curt apparently), see as illogical actually has a logic or explanation that we have not considered (maybe this apparent contradiction didn’t occur to you guys at the time. That’s fine, but it is a little frustrating as a listener to feel like this very highly honored and obviously intelligent and deep-thinking guest just isn’t making sense).

      Again, the problem, as I see it is that my understanding of human justice is that its basis is a conception of man’s moral dignity that he holds by virtue of being created in the image of God. So either nothing can be held to be unjust because their is no transcendent notion of how somebody should be treated (i.e. rights), or if justice exists, than it DOES imply that rights exist.


      1. Here’s a fourth possibility. Prof. Bigger is just trolling in order to highlight the reality that “justice” cannot truly exist without rights, and rights cannot exist without an appeal to a transcendent reality.


  3. The claim that justice is not contingent upon a theory of rights is not illogical, so far as I can see. It might be wrong–and, in fact, I have argued in print that it is wrong, for some of the reasons you all have advanced–but I fail to see how there’s any “contradiction” in the view that we were remiss in pointing out. I thought we raised problems with it (such as, for instance, the problem that rejecting rights language leaves disempowered people without a rhetorically suasive counter to the state)…but could we have done more? Sure!

    Your claim about the imago dei grounding rights might be correct! But it doesn’t seem *that* hard to conceive of wrongs that don’t bottom out in the language of rights. I’m persuaded that it’s wrong to tell lies to myself–but that doesn’t entail that I have a right against myself for the truth. I’m not sure what that would even mean. We could go on with similar types of examples.

    In general, this is the sort of thing that Biggar is pushing against–a ‘rights absolutism’ that reduces every strand of moral reasoning to that framework. And to the extent that rights do have that sort of deflationary character, I think he’s correct to object. So if we didn’t push harder on that particular point, it might be because I largely agree with it.

    Here’s the Anglican Review article. I strongly encourage you to read his book. I disagree with parts of it, but it’s a fantastic work.


  4. Is Biggar a nominalist? I infer that he rejects natural law along with natural rights, but that wasn’t crystal clear. He affirms natural justice, but I didn’t catch his grounding for that. I would also be interested to know what normative ethical theory he ascribes to as I couldn’t suss it out. Divine Command Theory? Kant?

    I’m not sure if his Wikipedia page is accurate or not, but I see Rawls is listed as an influence. Is so, the Rawlsian approach to doing political philosophy without doing metaphysics first lines up with what felt to me a metaphysically under-developed defense of justice. Obviously it’s hard to cover all the bases in a short conversation.


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