What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that determine the rights, duties, and responsibilities of people and institutions. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Its four primary functions are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Different legal systems serve these purposes in different ways. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace but oppress minorities and political opponents. An imperialistic country may impose peace in a region while waging war in another country.

The idea of law is a fundamental concept in our everyday lives. The law governs all that we do and everything we own, from driving a car to buying a house to forming an organization to appointing leaders. It affects us at work, at school, in the community and in our relationships with family and friends. It is also a major part of the public discourse and media coverage, as politicians, pundits and the press argue about whether a given policy or action is right or wrong.

In addition to its practical and ethical dimensions, law is a complex field of inquiry. It is a discipline that incorporates elements of philosophy, science, sociology and history, and it is often contested by competing theories of justice (the distribution of goods and privileges/burdens in a society). The practice of law is typically overseen by a government or independent regulating body. Modern lawyers are required to go through a series of specified procedures, including earning a law degree, passing a bar exam and becoming a member of the bar association or law council.

Legal systems are divided into civil, common and criminal law. The sources of law are primarily legislation (laws passed by a legislature) and case law (judge-made precedent). A common distinction is between civil law systems that codify legislation and common law systems that rely on a judicial system to adapt the law to social change.

A key difference in the study of law is a distinction between natural and human law. The distinction is a legacy of the Enlightenment, which split reality into “natural” and “human” realms. The modern scientific worldview is based on this dichotomy and is reflected in the way law is studied:

A more holistic approach to understanding law would consider a non-modern perspective, such as that of an indigenous culture that does not divide nature into natural/human and natural/natural/human. This would allow for the development of a definition that is applicable to both judicial and scientific uses. It could also be useful in addressing the current conflict over climate change. An example of this type of non-modern perspective is the law of the Inuit, which reflects the cultural view that laws are created by nature and human beings together. This perspective, in contrast to the dichotomy of modern scientific thinking, is a promising starting point for developing an observer-centric definition of law.