Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. In general, laws are aimed at promoting social harmony and preserving the welfare of the population. They also serve to protect individual rights, and they may be used to punish those who commit crimes or transgress against society’s norms. The precise nature of law is a subject of long-standing debate and the definition of it varies widely from place to place. In most nation-states, the laws are made by and enforced by political authorities, and there are many attempts to create more democratic or egalitarian forms of government.
A number of fields are involved in the study of law, including jurisprudence and legal ethics. People who study law are called jurists. In some countries, lawyers are called attorneys or barristers, and they are usually described as solicitors or doctors of law (Doctor of Laws).
The most basic kind of law is a commandment or injunction imposed by a higher power. Examples include religious law, which is based on divine precepts. For example, the Jews have a body of law called Halakha and the Muslims have Shariah. Religious law often acts as a source of further law, through interpretation and other means, such as Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and the doctrine of precedent.
Some laws are established by legislatures, while others are established by a court’s decision. In common law systems, decisions of higher courts are binding on lower courts, so that similar cases reach similar conclusions. This is called the “doctrine of stare decisis”. In contrast, in civil law systems, legislative statutes have precedence over court decisions.
Other kinds of law include contracts, property, and criminal law. Contract law deals with agreements between people and between businesses, while property law sets out people’s rights and duties toward tangible things, like land or buildings, as well as intangible assets, such as shares of stock or bank accounts. Criminal law, on the other hand, aims to protect society by deterring crime and by imposing penalties on those who commit it.
Almost all modern societies have laws in some form, but there are still some living cultures that use a different concept of law, one that does not divide reality into natural/human and observer/observation. This non-modern view of law could help in the creation of a more unified definition for it. Alternatively, it might provide a perspective on law that is more useful for judging and governing. See law, philosophy of for more on this topic.