What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by governments, social or cultural groups, or individuals for the purpose of keeping order and ensuring safety. Laws may be imposed by force, as in the case of police and military action, or they may be voluntary, as with a free press and other restrictions on power. The law can also be a code of conduct, sanctioned by concepts of morality, natural justice, or the will of a deity.

A society that does not have a stable and effective legal system cannot function well. Most nations have a constitution that establishes the basic structure of their laws. However, the specific content of this document varies greatly from nation to nation, based on local culture and history. A key question is how much control the people of a nation have over their political and legal system: do they have real choice about who makes laws, and can they influence those decisions?

In most countries, the law is made by a group legislature (a parliament, for example), resulting in statutes; by an individual legislator, resulting in decrees or regulations; or established by judges through precedent, as in common law jurisdictions. Some laws may be written down in books, but most are simply passed orally, or implied by custom and practice. The law can include both civil and criminal codes, but in many places the most important law is custom and tradition.

The law can cover a wide variety of subjects, from the rights that people have to their own bodies and property (property law), to commercial and financial regulation (banking law, corporate law). Intellectual property law covers the rights that people have over works of art, music and literature, protected by a type of law called copyright; and the rights that companies have over the names of their businesses and logos, protected by a type of law known as trademark. Banking law sets minimum standards for the amounts of capital banks must hold, and rules about best practices for investment. Other laws may regulate the provision of public services and utilities, such as water law.

In most cultures, law is rooted in family and social traditions. Philosophers have debated the extent to which it incorporates morality. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience”. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, have argued that the law reflects essentially moral laws of nature. In modern times, many people find the law a useful tool for ordering their lives. Others criticize it as a mechanism for controlling the behavior of citizens, or argue that the rules of law do not apply equally to all citizens. These debates are part of the rich and lively study of law.