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Rights from Wrongs

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Rights from Wrongs

A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

If you want to defend civil liberties, you can never rest. Someone is always planning to curtail your rights.

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Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Analytical
  • Innovative


This high level book on legal philosophy attempts to discover and explain the origins and future development of human rights and civil liberties. Legal scholar, Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz makes no attempt to tutor readers. He starts from an expert philosophical perspective, and only goes deeper as he seamlessly navigates through contemporary, historical and judicial examples to present his theory about the origins of rights. Dershowitz is a masterful, machete-wielding guide through a dense, challenging forest of ideas laced with tangled vines of legal ideology. recommends his book to readers with prior knowledge of the progress of human rights and U.S. civil liberties, as well as social and legal philosophy. It is a notch thick for good cocktail party conversation or easy undergraduate debate. However, it exemplifies Dershowitz’s vivid thought process and powerful command of social philosophy. Dershowitz and other civil libertarians feel constantly compelled to challenge any court rulings or majority-held opinions that even remotely hint of infringing on real or perceived personal rights. This book fully explains why.


Legal Fictions

Where do rights come from? Some assert that they are God-given, emanate from nature or result from logical arguments. Various groups developed these contentions over the years to buttress their respective positions. In reality, rights emanate from the experiences of other human beings and have worked their way into the legal system. Rights originate in the injustices done to other people. Thus, the rights those in the West may take for granted, such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, due process and democracy, developed as the result of injustices. If society violates or repeals these rights, it risks repeating past social injustices.

However, do not assume that human rights will remain the same forever, or that they always emerge immediately to correct past injustices. Since existing rights result directly from human experience, society must protect them constantly against infringement from new ideologues and others who would encroach on them. U.S. citizens must be even more vigilant today in light of new laws passed to control terrorism. Yet, while society must protect its citizens’ rights, those rights should also evolve in response to...

About the Author

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is a defense attorney, columnist, lecturer and author. His books include Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000; Why Terrorism Works; Letters to a Young Lawyer; Sexual McCarthyism; Reasonable Doubts; Chutzpah; Reversal of Fortune; The Genesis of Justice and The Abuse Excuse.

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