Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights

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9780465017133: Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights

This is a wholly new and compelling answer to one of the most persistent dilemmas in both law and moral philosophy: If rights are "natural"-if, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, it is "self-evident that all men are endowed...with certain inalienable rights"-where do these rights come from? Does natural law really exist outside the formal structure of humanly enacted law? On the other hand, if rights are nothing more than the product of human law, what argument is there for allowing the "rights" of a few people to outweigh the preferences of the majority?In this book, renowned legal scholar Alan Dershowitz offers a fresh resolution to this age-old dilemma: Rights, he argues, do not come from God, nature, logic, or law alone. They arise out of particular experiences with injustice. While justice is an elusive concept, hard to define and subject to conflicting interpretations, injustice is immediate, intuitive, widely agreed upon and very tangible.This is a timely book that will have an immediate impact on our political dialogue, from the intersection of religion and law to recent quandaries surrounding the right to privacy, voting rights, and the right to marry. More than that, it is a passionate case for the recognition of human rights in a rigorously secular framework. Rights from Wrongs will be the first book to propose a theory of rights that emerges not from some theory of perfect justice but from its opposite: from the bottom up, from trial and error, and from our collective experience of injustice.

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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

About the Author:

Alan Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Known as a defense lawyer, he is also a litigator, columnist, lecturer, book reviewer, and prolific author. His recent books include Sexual McCarthyism, on the Starr investigation, and Reasonable Doubts, on the O. J. Simpson case. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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