What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules enforceable by a governing body to govern conduct, maintain order, and ensure justice. Historically, this body of rules has included customs and traditions, as well as more formalized legal systems and procedures. Law is often seen as a key element of human civilization and a key part of social justice.

The precise nature of law is a matter of longstanding debate. It has been described as a science, an art, and a social system. Some of the most prominent thinkers in this field have included Aristotle, Plato, and Aristotle’s Nicomachus; medieval theorists like Sir John Fortescue and Niccolo Machiavelli; the Enlightenment authors of Montesquieu and John Locke; and American constitutionalism.

Law is often divided into several branches, each of which covers a particular area of societal concern. Contract law, for example, regulates agreements to exchange goods or services; property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible (real) and intangible (“personal”) possessions such as houses, cars, and shares of stock; and criminal law prosecutes criminal activities, including murder.

In many countries, laws are enforced by a combination of state and private agencies. The public agencies include the police and government officials, as well as administrative courts. The private agencies include the court system, lawyers, and prosecutors. The precise divisions between the two types of law are not fixed, and many jurisdictions combine elements of both civil and common law into a hybrid system.

One of the core ideas in law is that it should be general, rather than addressing particular individuals or situations. This is the basis of the legal tradition of antipathy to Bills of Attainder, and it is reflected in the longstanding constitutional opposition to racial discrimination. The principle of generality also embodies the idea that law should be epistemically accessible; that is, it should be a body of norms publicly promulgated so that people can study and internalize them, understand their operation, and use them to guide their plans, expectations, and interactions with others.

The law is a complex system that serves many different purposes. Some of these are obvious, such as maintaining a peace and protecting property, while others are less apparent, such as preserving the rights of minorities or providing for social change in an orderly manner. Moreover, the law can be abused in various ways. A nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and preserve the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and stifle political opposition. Consequently, the proper functioning of a legal system requires independence of the judiciary, transparency in government business, and the integrity of legal procedures.