What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has long been a subject of debate. The term law encompasses both the written and unwritten rules that govern a society and the people in it. Its societal impact extends far beyond criminal and civil justice to encompass a variety of issues, such as family and community, environment, education, and health. The word also describes the professions that work in the field of law, such as attorneys and judges.

The most common definition of law is that it is a system of commands issued and enforced by a sovereign authority. This view is important because it explains how laws are made and enforced, but does not explain why a certain command might be considered lawful or not.

A more complete definition of law includes the idea that laws can be created and enforced by social or governmental agencies, and that these laws govern people’s interactions with each other. However, there are many different ways that laws can be created and enforced, and not all of them are effective in the same way. The governing authority that makes and enforces law is a major factor in how useful a particular legal regime is.

Government-enforced laws can be made by a legislature, which results in statutes; by the executive branch through decrees and regulations; or by courts through caselaw, in common law jurisdictions. Additionally, private individuals may create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that adopt alternative dispute resolution methods to standard court litigation.

There are a number of schools of thought about what makes a law “lawful.” Intentionalists believe that lawmakers’ intentions should be given primacy over the plain meaning of the text, and that interpreters should seek evidence of those intentions, including intent communicated through context or history, in addition to the literal words of the statute. Others, such as legal positivists, argue that a law should only be interpreted to the extent that it does not conflict with the fundamental principles of fairness and due process.

Another consideration is whether or not a law has any moral component to it. For example, a prohibition against insider trading might be considered a law that reflects a moral stance against corruption. However, some critics have argued that the concept of morality is a separate issue from that of law.

The practical function of a law is to allow people to plan their activities and to take action with confidence that they will not face legal consequences. This enables communities to grow and develop, and it provides a degree of stability that allows people to plan and coordinate over time. A stable rule of law can only be guaranteed if the rules are widely understood and respected, and if there is a check against official arbitrariness. However, there are always struggles to keep the rule of law in place, particularly in times of transition when new groups gain power and want to change the existing structure.