What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that govern the way a society or country operates. The laws are made by the government, and citizens must follow them or face punishment if they break them.

Legal Systems

There are two broad types of law: civil and common law. In the former, the rules are written down and enforced through a system of courts, while in the latter, judges make decisions in accordance with the laws in place.

Various kinds of laws exist, including property, tax, banking, environmental and labour. There are also different systems of criminal law.

Constitutional law defines the powers of the government and establishes the structure of the state. In addition, it provides protection for the rights of individuals and groups.

Political philosophy, especially in Western civilization, emphasizes the need to delineate the sphere of authority and power in which a government may operate (e.g., a constitution). Such an idea was strongly influenced by Greek and Roman conceptions of what is known as natural law, which held that positive or just law was based on the principles of a superior, ideal law that must be upheld by the state.

In both cases, however, there is a tension between the idealistic and the practical goals of the law. Specifically, constitutional or other forms of legal rights can serve as bastions of individual right-holders’ interests, agency, dignity, autonomy, control and liberty even in the face of utilitarian or more general notions of the common good or the good for the whole community, which often override these.

One of the most striking ways in which the differences between constitutional or other forms of legal rights and non-legal normative systems can be seen is the presence of some features which are absent from or muted in such rights as found in social clubs, trade unions, or universities (Raz 1979: 115-121; Wellman 1995: 251-255). These include: a) an institutional sphere of power that is relatively more powerful than other normative systems under its jurisdiction; b) a greater range of activities that can fall within its domain; c) a more compulsory nature that can be expected to compel people to perform the widest possible variety of actions that can or should be permitted; d) a tendency to enact disproportionate remedies and sanctions for failure to meet such obligations; e) a stronger reliance on violence than other normative systems to resolve conflicts; f) a tendency to impose sanctions and penalties more frequently and harshly than other normative systems (Raz 1986: 168-170; Sumner 1987: 70-79).

While these features are present in some legal rights, such as a person’s freedom of speech or the right to due process, they are not always evident in such rights. This is because the language of legal rights does not necessarily convey a sense of entitlement to the right-holder or of an exclusive interest in its exercise.