What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. The term is also used to refer to the professions that practice law, such as judges and lawyers. Law is one of the values that dominate liberal political morality, alongside democracy, human rights, and social justice. The values are related but do not fit tidily together; they may have competing priorities. Some legal philosophers, such as Raz (1977), emphasize the importance of a separation between positive law and morality; others, such as Fuller (1997), argue that there is a connection between the formal principles of law and dignity. In particular, he believed that people would be repelled by laws that embody and inscribe injustice in the way that antebellum slavery law or apartheid law did.

He argued that this meant that laws must be publicly promulgated as norms that can stand in the name of all citizens, that are accessible and intelligible to them, that form a public acknowledged framework for their actions and expectations and help them to settle disputes with others. They must be enforceable by law-making institutions that are independent of and accountable to public power, and they must have procedures for upholding citizens’ rights, settling disputes, and protecting them against abuses of public and private power.

This means that the law must be clear and accessible: it must be able to be understood by non-experts, it must have an identifiable source, and it must be clear in its expression of rights and duties. It must also allow for the judiciary to respond to social change and new needs by making new rules or by interpreting existing ones. Finally, it must have a procedural integrity: citizens must be able to trust that when a judge applies a norm to their individual case, she or he is taking account of their perspective on the matter and not just applying a rule in a blind manner.

This requires a degree of transparency that many legal philosophers have emphasized. It does not mean that all aspects of the law must be transparent; there are many issues that are sensitive to privacy and other concerns, including security, and it is not possible to have a completely open system. It does, however, require that there be a sufficiently transparent system of law to make it possible for professionals to give accurate advice about what the law means or requires in a given situation. This, in turn, reflects the sense of dignity that Fuller argued that the formal principles of law conveyed. It is a sense that suggests respect for the fact that individuals have a perspective of their own on the application of norms to their conduct and situation, and it implies that this should be taken into account. This is a profound principle that may be the key to establishing a system of law that can uphold dignity and promote justice.