What Is Law?

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Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a broad term with many interpretations, and the precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate. The most common definition focuses on the act of law making, defining, and enforcing rules — often in a formalized manner arranged in codes or other formats. Other definitions focus on the discipline and profession of law, including legal practice and legal education. Some scholars have also viewed law as a system of justice, and have sought to define it in terms of the principles and practices of justice.

The concept of law is closely associated with jurisprudence and, in particular, the natural law tradition. Natural law theory posits that law derives its authority and dignity from extra-legal considerations, such as morality, that are independent of any enforcement or convention. This is a contrast to positive law, which derives its authority and legitimacy from the state or from other human beings, such as judges or legislators.

For example, a common view is that the purpose of law is to protect people and their property from those who would harm them. Thus, the legal system aims to punish those who commit criminal acts and to reward those who do good. In addition, the legal system is designed to prevent discrimination and ensure that all citizens have equal opportunity in society.

Another view is that the objective of law is to provide a rational and fair mechanism for settling disputes, disputes that might otherwise be resolved through social convention or custom. Whether or not this view is true, it is widely accepted that the function of law is to promote order and stability in societies, and to protect the individual’s autonomy and privacy.

One of the most basic aspects of law is that it must be uniform as between individuals and in cases involving similar situations. This is a principle that finds its roots in the Old Testament scriptures, where the Bible teaches that it is wrong to respect persons or treat some people differently from others (Deuteronomy 16:18-19; Romans 14:23).

Another key aspect of law is the notion of rights. A right is a normative power that enables the holder to alter an aspect of the normative environment, be it a position, relationship, or norm. A right’s legal validity is usually based on the fact that it correlates to certain duties, and law typically establishes rights even when it is unclear or underdetermined what duties are correlating to those rights (MacCormick 1977: 193-194). Rights also include privileges, such as the right not to be subjected to unlawful search and seizure or of wrongful imprisonment (Raz 1970: 226-228). The legal system also recognizes claim-rights that impose obligations upon parties who assert them.