What Is Law?


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a wide variety of ways and mediates relations among people. It is not possible to give a precise definition of law, since it covers many different aspects of human activity. The most basic element of law is a set of precepts that are devised and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. These rules may be moral, social or ethical in nature, and they are usually grounded in a particular set of religious beliefs or principles. They are distinct from laws of physics, such as the law of gravity; they have a normative character and tell people what they ought to do or not do.

Moreover, the precise nature of law is often determined by who has political power, and the shape of that power can differ greatly from nation to nation. It is not uncommon for revolutions to take place in order to alter the governing structure and, thus, law. A political system of government that is unstable or oppressive is not likely to serve the principal functions of law, which are to protect citizens and ensure fairness in social interactions.

The law is generally organized into a hierarchy of courts and other institutions, including the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. In “common law” systems, decisions of the highest court bind lower courts and future judges through a principle known as stare decisis; this is in contrast to countries with civil law traditions, where legislative statutes and regulations are considered the legal equivalent of “law.”

The most common areas of law include contract law (the law of contracts) and property law (the law of ownership). Criminal law governs the punishment of crimes such as murder and robbery. Other common fields of law include family and employment law, taxation (the collection and distribution of taxes) and administrative law.

There is also a specialized area of law that governs international relations. Nevertheless, most of the law is local, and it depends on the social arrangements and political powers that exist in a given country. A general principle of law is that the state has no power to force people to do things that are against their natures or their capacities. However, it is also important to recognize that the law can never fully govern the whole world. There are always a variety of circumstances that cannot be foreseen or controlled by the laws of a particular jurisdiction. It is for this reason that many legal scholars have referred to law as “a soft science.”