What Is Law?

The law is the body of rules governing relationships among people in a given society. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in numerous ways. Law is a complicated idea and subject, and legal scholars have debated the concept for centuries. Laws vary widely between nations and are defined in many different ways by the societies in which they exist. It is also possible for the same rule to have multiple interpretations, as judges may read and apply laws in their own way based on their particular understanding of justice, morality and reason.

The term “law” is often used to refer to a specific legal system, but it can also be applied to any strong rule made by an authority that must be followed, including rules in the family or workplace. Laws may be written, oral or in practice, and can cover a variety of topics. For example, contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, while property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (such as land or buildings) and intangible property (such as bank accounts and shares of stock). Criminal laws deal with convicted crimes.

Legal systems vary, but the common thread among them is that they attempt to establish standards for human behavior and maintain order. Some laws are based on religious or social traditions, while others are derived from philosophical ideas like utilitarianism or naturalism.

A key question in defining law is whether it includes morality, or what kind of values are to be reflected in its creation. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s definition of law is that it is “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience.” Natural lawyers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Nicolaus Copernicus, argue that law should be rooted in innately moral principles that reflect the needs of humans.

Another major consideration in defining law is how it is changed or amended. In most constitutional democracies, a legislature is the entity responsible for making laws, although some countries allow for changes to be made by popular referendum. In common law systems, decisions of courts are recognized as being on equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations under the doctrine of stare decisis. In this system, the judge must interpret laws in a way that will address the case at hand and prevent radical indeterminacy or bias.

When a judge writes a decision that is meant to interpret a law, the judge must carefully consider what the framers intended when the law was created, and whether the literal interpretation of the law would accomplish the legislator’s purpose. Then the judge must determine what the best course of action is to achieve that purpose. This is a difficult task, but it is a necessary one in the democratic process. The process can be compared to that of a linguist interpreting a polysemous word.