What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a particular community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It has many functions, but the four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, and resolving disputes. Law can be created and enforced by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or through judges’ precedent, in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

The precise definition of law has been the subject of intense debate throughout history. The most influential early thinkers defined law as something that could be imposed by an authority and that was permanent in time and uniform with respect to all persons. Later, theorists emphasized that law should be based on reason rather than coercion and that it should serve a social good rather than simply reflect prevailing custom or moral values.

Today, the field of legal studies is divided into several subfields. One view, exemplified by Hart’s work, takes the study of law as a form of conceptual analysis. Other views, however, are skeptical of this approach and take theories of law to be in the business of explaining some concept of the phenomenon itself, a goal that is independent of other philosophical fields like metaethics.

While there are different viewpoints, most agree that laws are a means to solve problems in society and that they help us live harmoniously with each other. Laws protect people and property, for example by ensuring that no one can claim ownership of a certain piece of land. They also ensure that everyone is treated equally, whether by the police, government officials or public employees.

Laws also resolve conflicts between citizens or between the citizenry and its institutions. For example, tort law provides compensation when someone is harmed by another person’s wrongdoing, and criminal law punishes offenders for offenses against the state or its citizens.

As the modern world has expanded, so has the role of the law. Max Weber and others have reshaped thinking on the extension of state power, while modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over ordinary citizens’ daily lives pose special problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have foreseen. Law has also become increasingly global in scope. This is reflected in the growth of international law and comparative law.

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