What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that is enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate the behavior of members of a society. It is the subject of study in law schools and many other fields, such as philosophy, ethics, history, economics, political science, and religion. It is a complex subject, and the precise definition of law remains open to debate.

Law includes both the written and unwritten. Written laws are enforceable as statutes and regulations; they may also be in the form of contracts or arbitration agreements between private parties. Unwritten laws may be in the form of customs, traditions, and folklore. Law is a human construct, and its meaning and interpretation depend on the culture and beliefs of the society in which it exists. Laws shape politics, economics, and history, and can influence a society’s development.

Legal philosophy concerns the fundamental ideas that guide the formation and operation of law. For example, philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham have argued that the primary purpose of law is to achieve utilitarian goals such as wealth, order, and stability; others have interpreted law in more moral terms, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that laws were based on natural, immutable principles of good and evil.

A society’s laws are created, formulated, and enacted by its governing authorities. They can be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; imposed by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or established through case law, by judges, in common law jurisdictions. The latter approach allows the judiciary to adjust law to changing social circumstances through creative jurisprudence and clear expression of rights and duties.

Regardless of the source, law must satisfy three basic criteria to be considered valid: it must be epistemically accessible, meaning that it is a body of norms that is publicly promulgated so that people can study it and internalize it. It must be stable, and it must reflect the moral values of a society, such as compassion, justice, honesty, and fairness. Finally, it must be effective, ensuring that citizens can uphold their rights and settle disputes through impartial, efficient, and accessible institutions and procedures. While the exact parameters of these requirements vary from country to country, the broad principles remain the same. For these reasons, scholars have developed a number of theories about what constitutes “law” in different cultures and contexts. They include: