What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. In a nation, it can serve many functions including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and providing for orderly social change. Some legal systems may be more effective than others at serving these purposes.

Some scholars have proposed various theories to explain the nature of law. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Other scholars, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argued that law reflects innate principles of natural justice. These principles, they argued, are immutable and unchangeable.

Others have argued that the law is an objective social construct whose purpose is to satisfy society’s social wants and needs. In this view, the law is a tool of social engineering where conflicting pulls of political philosophy, economic interests and ethical values constantly struggle for recognition. This theory is referred to as the social-functionalist theory of the law.

The study of law is a broad subject with numerous subfields, such as contract law (regulating agreements to exchange goods and services), tort law (dealing with injury caused by negligent actions), property law (defining people’s rights and duties toward tangible property and intangible assets, such as shares of stock) and criminal law. It also includes the laws of nature and of science (governing concepts such as gravity, biology, chemistry, thermodynamics, physics and electricity) as well as the laws of morality.

The law is important in a society because it provides stability and direction. Without the rule of law, social chaos would ensue and society could not function. In a democratic republic, the people, through elected representatives, choose the laws that govern them. In a monarchy, the monarch decides what laws should be made. The laws are then enforceable by the government, which is responsible for ensuring that these laws are observed and punished when they are not. The responsibilities of the government and its citizens are outlined in a constitutional document, such as the United States Constitution or the French Constitution. A written constitution ensures that the government’s powers are limited, which is important to prevent corruption and other problems that can occur when excessive power is entrusted to individuals. A written constitution also allows citizens to protect themselves from oppressive governments by instituting checks and balances on the executive branch.

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