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The Oxford Guide to Law


Law serves several important purposes in societies, such as keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individual rights, preserving the existing social order, and promoting social justice. Some legal systems do this better than others.

The term “law” refers to a system of rules or principles that regulates the actions of people in particular places and communities. Oxford Reference offers authoritative, accessible information on this broad discipline–from the most concise definitions to in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering major terms and debates.

Generally, there are two types of norms in law: substantive and procedural. In general, substantive norms are more action-oriented and are concerned with aspects of human behavior that can be adjudicated (Raz 1979: 103-121; 1994: 255-259). Procedural norms are generally less action-oriented and focus more on how (i.e., the procedure of) certain other norms can be created, deliberated on, and applied in cases involving right-holders (Raz 1994: 255-259).

Some legal theories of rights offer the possibility that rights can function both as outcomes and reasons. This is a common approach in Hohfeldian analyses of rights, and can be seen in many civil and human rights.

In the case of rights that are “outcomes”, such as those derived from an established core right, they may be given effect by way of a specific correlative duty. For instance, a person’s right to health is a legal reason to impose a remedial duty to protect her against harms she suffers in the event that she does not get the medical care she needs.

However, if rights are justifications of other legal reasons, such as obligations to respect and safeguard others, they do not necessarily entail correlatives. This is because such duties may not be owed to the individuals that the right is designed to benefit.

This is not to say that all violated rights do not still count as legal reasons in one way or another; it just means that they are not always successful in grounding a remedy.

There are some exceptions, and Feinberg finds some such violations morally wanting (see Section 9.1).

To the extent that violations of rights do count as legal reasons, they are frequently justified by the violation of some other legal right or obligation that carries the same underlying reason. For example, the violation of a legal right to privacy may justify an individual’s right to seek redress under criminal law or other statutes.

While it is not possible to define the nature of these other underlying reasons, they are commonly associated with the common good. The common good is a set of values and commitments that people share and recognize as desirable.

A common element of the common good is a sense that all citizens are treated fairly and equally regardless of their personal qualities or background. This is often embodied in constitutional or fundamental rights that limit the coercive and punitive powers of governments.

In addition to this, the common good can also be used as a justification of certain other legal rights. These include rights to free speech and to equal protection under the law.