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Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. In addition to his teaching, Dershowitz is a prolific author who makes frequent media and public[…]

Even tyrants know that civilized society needs law.

Question: How did we develop legal systems?

Alan Dershowitz: We probably went through a longer period of time as Homo sapiens without law than with law. Law probably is a development of four or five thousand years, maybe earlier. We only have written records that go back to the earliest versions of the Bible.

Law is a very important way of controlling rage, passion, revenge, jealously; and law must reflect all of these emotions as well.

The law historically develops from experience. I wrote a book called “The Genesis of Justice” which dealt with the origins of biblical law. And the point I made is the book of Genesis doesn’t have law. There’s no law in Genesis. The law begins in Exodus; Mount Sinai, the rules of law.

And Genesis shows us how a world operates without law, and it’s a terrible world in which people do awful things to each other. The god character in the book Genesis has to destroy the whole world by the flood, and man has to try and recreate it from scratch.

We see human beings operating on the basis of instinct. Some good, some bad. The dysfunctional families of the Bible killing their enemies, sometime even preemptively.

And then we move toward the development of some kind of a common law, some understanding toward the end of the book of Genesis of what’s right and what’s wrong. And then eventually to codification in the book of Exodus with the Ten Commandments, and then the rules that follow in the Ten Commandments.

So law is essential to civilized society. Every tyrant understands that. What tyrants want are laws that they can impose on others but are not restrictive of themselves.

We in western culture say no one’s above the law, and everybody must be subject to the rule of law. It’s also a part of democratic accountability. The law has to be published, and visible, and accessible to all, and subject to challenge and change. And that’s what the rule of law is. And probably there’s no more important contribution to civilization and progress than the rule of law.


Recorded On: 6/12/07