What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that regulate human behavior and creates a social order. Its precise definition has long been a subject of debate. The broadest interpretation of law includes not only written statutes but also unwritten custom and socially accepted practices. It encompasses both the punishment of individuals for infringements on public order and the adjudication of disputes between private citizens and institutions. Its varying forms are a source of intense intellectual inquiry in the fields of history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

The term “law” is most often applied to a system of principles and commands prescribed or recognized by some governing power in an organized jural society as its will in relation to the conduct of its members, or both. The law thus includes not only the statutes and rules of civil and criminal justice, but also the edicts of religious cults and the commandments of scriptures such as the Old Testament (Matthew 5:18).

In addition to the laws governing criminal and civil actions, there are numerous other branches of law. Contract law covers agreements to trade goods, services or anything else of value; tort law governs civil wrongs such as negligence and trespass; property law determines an individual’s rights and duties toward tangible assets including land, buildings and personal possessions; and administrative laws (regulations) cover activities such as the distribution and management of public utilities and resources like water and energy.

A major purpose of law is to establish standards, for example that certain acts should not be tolerated in a civilized society because they violate a fundamental principle of morality such as the right not to be injured. This concept is often reflected in the criminal code of most countries.

Another purpose of law is to maintain order in a society; this is generally reflected by the military, police, prisons and courts. The rule of law can also be seen as a tool for social progress, by ensuring that conflicting interests are balanced and that the general welfare is served through distributive and corrective justice.

Many legal systems are designed to balance these competing aims. For example, a democratic government may keep the peace by encouraging civil discourse and by allowing free speech; it may also protect minorities against majorities, provide for peaceful and orderly social change, and safeguard liberties and property. Conversely, an authoritarian state may keep the peace by controlling the lives of its citizens, but it is likely to repress minorities and oppress political opponents.

The neo-realist school of jurisprudence is concerned with the actual working and effects of law rather than its philosophical underpinnings or philosophical origin. It is a reaction to the dominant theological and moralizing orientation of sociological jurisprudence, and was articulated by K. Llewellyn in the 1930s. It has been described as a violent reaction to the sociological school’s tendency to reduce law to positive morality. The neo-realists argue that this approach is deficient because it does not consider the role of law in promoting social development.