Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. These rules are often coercive and backed by penalties. Laws may be enacted by the group legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by executive decree or regulation; or through judicial decisions, resulting in case law. Laws can also be created by private individuals through contract or arbitration agreements. Some laws are universally applicable, while others are specific to certain jurisdictions or types of transactions.
The precise nature of law is a topic of intense debate. Some scholars believe that the nature of law is an entirely objective and unknowable matter, whereas others assert that the very concept of law is inherently infused with a subjective element. The question of whether or not there is a universally shared definition of law is further complicated by the fact that many legal concepts overlap.
For example, the concept of law encompasses terms such as arraignment (the formal introduction of a defendant to a court and the reading of charges against them), precedent (a previous decision that a judge will use to guide his or her determination of how to decide a similar current case), and civil, criminal, and appellate procedure (rules for conducting a trial).
One of the most controversial theories of the origin of law argues that it is an expression of social wants and needs. According to Roscoe Pound, the fundamental purpose of law is to satisfy a society’s desire for control and coercion. The laws of a society may be imposed by the government, which imposes a hierarchy of governing authorities; by the community, resulting in customary or folk law; or by individuals, who create private contracts and codes of ethics.
In this theory, law is a social institution that claims to be legitimate and enforceable, although it may fail in that claim. In contrast, Joseph Raz argued that any institution that claims to be a social law must also claim to be a de facto authority. Raz’s argument is more promising, but it still leaves open the question of how to evaluate a particular legal system’s legitimacy.
Some scholars challenge the normative aspect of law, arguing that it is only a mechanism for justifying the coercive actions of a state. However, this view is criticized by H.L.A. Hart, who argues that the predictive interpretation of laws obscures their normative significance and that it is precisely their normative significance that gives rise to the desire for people to comply with them.
Other scholars of law have explored the relationship between the law and power. They have analyzed the relationship between the law and the concepts of politics, economics, history, and culture. They have also questioned the relationship between the law and religion, as well as its connection with human rights. These discussions have led to numerous articles on censorship; crime and punishment; justice, equality of; and war.