What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has been the subject of long debate. In its broadest sense, law includes any set of regulations that governs some area of human activity, from a country’s liberal political asylum laws to a family’s spousal support agreement. The term law also refers to a legal document, such as a statute or bill, that has been passed by both houses of Congress and sent to the president for his signature. Such documents are called laws because they receive a numerical designation, such as P.L. 107-101, which indicates that it is the 107th law passed by the United States Congress.

In a nation, law serves several important purposes: it can keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, and promote social justice. It can also provide an avenue for orderly social change. Different legal systems serve these functions differently, with some nations achieving more success in one or more areas than others.

The most central aspect of law is the concept of legal rights. Rights give right-holders a measure of normative control over themselves or others, functioning to make them “small-scale sovereign[s]” over certain domains (Hart 1982: 183). These rights can be either legal in nature or moral in nature. Legal rights can justify other rights, allowing them to “span the whole spectrum of the legal order” (Raz 1979: 268-269).

A key feature of any legal system is its courts. Judges are responsible for interpreting and applying the law, and they do so according to the precedents established by previous cases. These precedents can be biased or outdated, but they remain binding until a judicial body overturns them.

Laws also reflect the values and beliefs of a society, and they can reinforce or challenge social norms. The laws of a culture can also be seen as a kind of religion, in that they guide behavior by setting out what is considered acceptable and unacceptable.

A country’s legal landscape depends on its political situation. Authoritarian governments, for instance, can control lawmaking and enforcement, but they may oppress minorities or interfere with democracy. This makes it difficult to fulfill the principal functions of law. In contrast, a democracy provides citizens with a greater degree of control over their lives and can help them to achieve the goals of law.