Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a broad term, and its precise definition is a subject of much debate. It has been variously characterized as both a science and an art of justice.
A common view of the nature of law is that it is a form of rationality which imposes certain standards on human action and regulates their consequences. It is, however, not always possible to apply the logic of syllogism to the determining of what is right and wrong; other factors must also be taken into account. These may include the felt necessities of the time, prevalent moral and political theories, public policy intuitions, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices of judges (Bentham 1792: 15).
An important point is that laws must be public, not just in the sense of actual promulgation but in the sense of being accessible and intelligible to ordinary citizens. This requirement is, in fact, a prerequisite of the Rule of Law, and it ensures that citizens are informed about what their government requires them to do and what they may be penalized for failing to do. It is compatible with invidious discrimination, which is not aimed at any particular individual, but it can still work as a constraint on the power of officials.
In addition, laws must be enforceable, so that people are not afraid to rely on them. For this purpose, the law must have sufficient authority to deter abuses and penalties must be sufficiently severe. This can be achieved by a combination of constitutional principles and the practical experience of those who administer the law. For further discussion of this issue see the articles censorship; crime and punishment; and police.
Lastly, the law must be objective in that it should be free from personal influences and considerations. This can be achieved by having a body of judges that are independent and impartial. A vigorous debate is now taking place over whether the judging class should be made more diverse, and about how much a judge should express his or her own opinion of what is right and wrong.
The emergence of this special framework involving law is a fascinating subject in itself, and it makes the study of law an interesting and important subject for students of social science. Articles that deal with the deeper dimensions of this subject include law, philosophy of; legal system; and law and society. For the relation of the law to other aspects of social structure, see constitution; ideology; and politics. Articles that explore the way in which the law is applied, including the judicial process, are court; jury; and law and order. For further discussion of the nature of the law and its relationship to political structures, see legal profession; political party; and parliamentary system. Also see the articles censorship; crime and law; land reform; and war.