Law is the set of rules that governs the conduct of people and their interactions with one another. It provides a framework for a well-ordered society, ensures the safety of individuals and property, and allows for the punishment of offenders. In addition to governing human behaviour, law can be used to govern the conduct of institutions such as governments, businesses, and schools. Law is a highly complex subject, and numerous books and debates have been written on it. However, a common theme has emerged: law is a social tool created by the state to control and direct society in order to meet its needs.
From a philosophical perspective, what makes law special is that it is normative, that is, it prescribes how people ought to behave or not. This makes it distinct from empirical science (such as a law of gravity) and even social science. It is also unique in that it cannot be verified by scientific methods, and as such it cannot be proved wrong. In other words, it is not subject to the same type of criticism that would be levelled against any other normative domain such as morality or social conventions.
The nature of law is a topic of ongoing debate and there are many different theories. Hans Kelsen proposed a “pure theory” of law, which defines it as the aggregate of rules established by a superior authority that is binding upon men, as political subjects. This theory is based on the idea that laws exist only to serve certain social purposes and that it is the duty of citizens to obey the laws.
Others have taken a more historical approach to the study of law. Max Weber reshaped thinking about the role of the state and the concept of law, while Roscoe Pound argued that law is a system of social controls and coercion.
It is important to realise that, despite its complexity, law is a very practical discipline. It governs the way that a company does business, the rights of people to their property and how crimes are punished. It also helps to regulate our interactions with other nations, as reflected in international law.
Laws are derived from a variety of sources, including custom, tradition and legal technique. They are largely dependent on the social circumstances of the time in which they are made, and the underlying political structures vary from nation to nation. This is why there are so many different types of law, such as civil, family and commercial, with each having its own specific objectives. For examples, contract law regulates agreements between people for the exchange of goods and services; tort law provides compensation if an individual is harmed by the actions of another person; and property law determines the rights and duties of owners of tangible and intangible property. There are also a number of special branches of law, such as immigration; nationality; and international law. For articles discussing the relationship between law and political structures, see politics; democracy; power; and government.