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Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights [Kindle Edition]

Alan M. Dershowitz
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Where do our rights come from? Does "natural law" really exist outside of what is written in constitutions and legal statutes? If so, why are rights not the same everywhere and in all eras? On the other hand, if rights are nothing more than the product of human law, why should we ever allow them to override the popular will? In Rights from Wrongs, renowned legal scholar Alan Dershowitz puts forward a wholly new and compelling answer to this age-old dilemma: Rights, he argues, do not come from God, nature, logic, or law alone. They arise out of particular human experiences with injustice. Rights from Wrongs is the first book to propose a theory of rights that emerges not from a theory of perfect justice but from its opposite: from the bottom up, from trial and error, and from our collective experience of injustice. Human rights come from human wrongs. "[Dershowitz's] underlying theory is one that can be neutrally applied by people residing at all positions within the political spectrum.... Perhaps if his views were understood by more people, there would be both a toning down of the political rhetoric." -Tampa Tribune

Editorial Reviews Review

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These rights are as cherished today as when Thomas Jefferson enumerated them 231 years ago, but traditional faith isn't doing as well (witness Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens). If God goes, do our rights go with him? Not according to Alan Dershowitz, who in Rights from Wrongs proposes the theory that they come not from God (theists have no monopoly on moral behavior), nature (whose first rule is selfishness), or the law itself (Dershowitz is no fan of legal positivism). Rather, he argues that, in a sense, two wrongs do make a right: that our rights are built from the ground up, in the manner of the common law: we "agree upon the least desirable ways of life and seek to protect against those evils." Dershowitz is likely to lose some readers, especially those who trend toward the right, in the book's second half, where he begins to apply his theory to issues including organ donation, separation of church and state, animal rights, and immigration. Regardless, Rights from Wrongs is a fine companion piece to the "atheist trilogy": well-argued, thought-provoking, and likely to appeal to those interested in politics and philosophy as well as religion and law. --Benjamin Lukoff


"Persistently thoughtful.... A crash course in legal theory that's cheaper and faster than law school. And more intriguingly lucid." -- Boston Globe

Product Details

  • File Size: 407 KB
  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0465017142
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 20, 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #862,005 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars compelling arguments February 21, 2006
By A. Chai
Mr. Dershowitz has a secular theory of how our ideas of human rights evolved over time. He rejects the idea that "rights" can be derived from natural law, divine law, logic, or even human jurisprudence. He posits that "human rights" come from experience with "human wrongs," those events that we all agree have gone very badly. In other words, human rights evolved as sort of a trial-and-error golden rule: stop doing unto others what we really wouldn't want to be done unto us. He calls this approach "working from the bottom up, from a dystopian view of our experiences with injustice..."

The first half of the book deals primarily with where our rights come from. (from experience, he argues) The second half of the book switches gears to contemporary issues and controversies. Here he offers no answers, but rather argues that the answers will change depending on how the argument is framed. There are points at which the author comes across as arrogant, but hey, he's a lawyer. The arguments are compelling and well-crafted, and most readers will find that they agree with some points and disagree with others.

Overall, this book is well-written and at times it is even engaging. If you have any interest in legal, political, or ethical theory, this book is worth reading. If you are a Social Darwinist or an Ethicist of any religious stripe, you may be interested in learning about how "the other guy" thinks.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It Would be Wrong Not to Read this Enlightening Book December 21, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights by Alan M. Dershowitz
"Rights From Wrongs" is a very interesting book on the source of our rights from a welcomed secular point of view. Preeminent legal scholar and renowned criminal lawyer, Alan M. Dershowitz provides the readers with a lucid, engaging account on the secular origin of rights. Despite being broken out into three parts this book is really about two: the first half focuses on the origins of rights while the second half is the application of said theory of rights to specific controversies. This enlightening 274-page book is composed of twenty chapters and is broken out in the following three parts: I. The Sources of Rights, II. Some Challenges to Experience as the Source of Rights, and III. Applying the Experiential Theory of Rights to Specific Controversies.

1. A well-written, well-researched book that is accessible to the masses.
2. A fascinating topic in the hands of a preeminent legal mind.
3. A welcomed and more compelling secular point of view. Engaging, coherent, well reasoned book.
4. This book addresses to satisfaction the question, "Where do rights come from?"
5. A direct challenge to the approach to rights taken by both classical natural law and legal positivism. Throughout the book, Dershowitz states a who's who behind the classical approaches and provides a fair treatment of their perspectives. He also proposes a third approach, one based on human experiences.
6. Thought-provoking book. The author weaves a fine web of legal brain teasers.
7. The implications of rights being a product solely of human invention. A recurring theme, human experiences as the source of rights.
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8 of 63 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Mental Meltdown October 19, 2007
By D V
This book is like 'stepping into an elevator with a suicide bomber'. Alan Dershowitz is a second-rate scholar and a third-rate mind. It is remarkable that his inane liberal prejudice, which masquerades as legal thought and into which he has perversely yet obviously sublimated his secular Jewish identity, has been able to secure him the accolades of his peers and the vaunted status of Harvard emeritus. I picked up this book wondering whether a man of Dershowitz's reputation would suceed in establishing a secular basis for rights (a daunting task). Needless to say, he does not. Dershowitz merely shifts the problem of the essence of 'rights' to the recognition of 'wrongs' so as to avoid the implication of God. Rights emerge from a desire to avoid wrongs, says Dershowitz. The author does not, however, ever really explain how 'wrongs' are recognized by men in the first place; yet this capacity for a priori moral recognition is the lynchpin of his entire argument. A bad parlour trick. Laughable. Jejune. Smug. Narcissistic. Neurotic. Self-absorbed. Hysterical.
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More About the Author

ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ is a Brooklyn native who has been called 'the nation's most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer' and one of its 'most distinguished defenders of individual rights,' 'the best-known criminal lawyer in the world,' 'the top lawyer of last resort,' and 'America's most public Jewish defender.' He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Dershowitz, a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale Law School, joined the Harvard Law School faculty at age 25 after clerking for Judge David Bazelon and Justice Arthur Goldberg. While he is known for defending clients such as Anatoly Sharansky, Claus von B'low, O.J. Simpson, Michael Milken and Mike Tyson, he continues to represent numerous indigent defendants and takes half of his cases pro bono. Dershowitz is the author of 20 works of fiction and non-fiction, including 6 bestsellers. His writing has been praised by Truman Capote, Saul Bellow, David Mamet, William Styron, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua and Elie Wiesel. More than a million of his books have been sold worldwide, in numerous languages, and more than a million people have heard him lecture around the world. His most recent nonfiction titles are The Case For Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can be Resolved (August 2005, Wiley); Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (November 2004, Basic Books), The Case for Israel (September 2003, Wiley), America Declares Independence, Why Terrorism Works, Shouting Fire, Letters to a Young Lawyer, Supreme Injustice, and The Genesis of Justice. His novels include The Advocate's Devil and Just Revenge. Dershowitz is also the author of The Vanishing American Jew, The Abuse Excuse, Reasonable Doubts, Chutzpah (a #1 bestseller), Reversal of Fortune (which was made into an Academy Award-winning film), Sexual McCarthyism and The Best Defense.


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