What’s Wrong With Rights?

McDonald Conference 2015 – Thursday 21 May to Friday 22 May

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How absolute are rights?  Should they always trump other moral considerations?  Does it help to distinguish statutory rights from natural ones?  Are rights necessarily bound up with radical individualism?  Can they do justice to the proper claims of the common good?  Should Christians support them or repudiate them?  How do rights at home in Western civil society appear to those struggling to negotiate stable peace out of bloody civil conflict?  When is it ‘proportionate’ to override a right?

These were the focal questions under discussion by an international and interdisciplinary array of speakers commanding expertise in theology; philosophy; the theory and practice of law; ‘transitional justice’ in South Africa, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland; and the impact of law on military practice:

  • Professor Nigel Biggar, moral theologian, University of Oxford; author of In Defence of War and “Individual Rights versus Common Security? Christian Moral Reasoning about Torture”
  • Lord (Simon) Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, former Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Dr Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics, SOAS, University of London; former co-founder of Oxford Transitional Justice Research
  • Rev. Nicholas Mercer, formerly Lt.-Col. and Chief Legal Adviser to the British Army in Iraq; Liberty Human Rights Lawyer of the Year, 2011-2012
  • Professor John Milbank, theologian, University of Nottingham; author of “Against Human Rights: Liberty in the Western Tradition”
  • Baroness (Onora) O’Neill, philosopher; Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; former President of the British Academy; author of “The Dark Side of Human Rights”
  • Professor Esther Reed, theologian, University of Exeter; author of The Ethics of Human RightsContested Doctrinal and Moral Issues
  • Professor Julian Rivers, lawyer, University of Bristol; editor-in-chief of the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion; author of “Constitutional Rights and Statutory Limitations”
  • Professor David Tombs, theologian and scholar of peace studies, University of Otago, New Zealand; author of Rights and Righteousness: Religious Pluralism and Human Rights
  • Lt.-Col. (ret’d) Tom Tugendhat, former Principal Adviser to the Chief of the Defence Staff; author of The Fog of Law
  • Professor Paul Yowell, lawyer, University of Oxford; former postdoctoral fellow with the Oxford Law Faculty for the AHRC-funded project “Parliaments and Human Rights”

The conference comprised five sessions:

I.      Rights: is Christianity for or against them?  

i.      John Milbank
ii.     Esther Reed

II.     Moral rights, legal rights, and the claims of the social good

i.      Onora O’Neill
ii.     Nigel Biggar

III.    Rights and proportionality in legal reasoning

i.       Paul Yowell
ii.     Julian Rivers

IV.    Rights and paying the price of peace in ‘transitional justice’

i.      David Tombs
ii.     Phil Clark

V.     Is rights-jurisprudence undermining the British Army?

i.       Tom Tugendhat
ii.      Simon Brown
iii.     Nicholas Mercer