What Is Law?


Law is a collection of rules a society develops to deal with problems such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. Its rules govern people’s everyday lives in a variety of ways, from defining property rights to specifying criminal penalties for offenses. Law is a complex subject because it has both descriptive and prescriptive aspects. It describes how things ought to be, and it also prescribes what people may require of others and what they must do if asked. This dual characteristic distinguishes law from other types of statements, such as those made in empirical science (like the law of gravity) or even social science, which describe cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena.

A nation’s laws vary widely from place to place, reflecting the cultural and political history of that country. The principal purposes of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual liberty and property, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, and facilitate orderly social change. Nations ruled by authoritarian or corrupt governments often fail to serve these core functions, but stable democracies and those undergoing democratic transition are able to fulfill them.

Law also serves as the coordinating element of a society’s many institutions, organizations and partnerships, which are all geared toward making society work. These include corporations, government agencies, civil societies and families, among other groups. Law enables the participation of these groups by providing them with a common language and framework for expressing their goals and expectations of each other and the world in which they live.

In addition, the laws of a culture reflect its beliefs about the nature and purpose of human beings and their relations with each other and with the natural environment. For example, a society may define its laws by religious precepts. Examples of this type of law include Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, which are still used in some communities today.

The law influences politics, economics and history in various ways and serves as a mediator of people’s relations. There are two main types of legal systems: those that are “civil law” jurisdictions, where legislative statutes and regulations take precedence over judge-made precedent; and those that are “common law” jurisdictions, where case law is recognized as binding.

The laws of a culture are influenced by its cultural heritage and values, its historical development, its societal and economic context, and the country’s international standing in the world community. These factors are reflected in such concepts as the supremacy of law, equality before the law, independence of the judiciary, legal certainty and transparency, separation of powers and participation in the decision-making process. These are some of the pillars that support the principle of law in most countries today. Other important issues are constitutional principles, law and ethics, and legal education. See the articles on these subjects for more information.