What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that a society imposes on its members to govern relationships between people and with the government. It shapes politics, economics, history and social relations in numerous ways. Law can be a complex and contested concept. Its definition may be influenced by one’s political, religious and philosophical beliefs.

The power to make and enforce laws depends on a nation’s political landscape, which is highly variable from one country to another. Each year, revolutions are fought over who has the authority to make and enforce laws. The desire for democratic rule and greater “rights” for citizens are a recurring theme in many societies. The fundamental function of law is to maintain order. This can be achieved by imposing laws that prohibit certain behaviour, or it can be done by the police through arrests and interrogations.

Most legal systems are based on a mix of civil and common law traditions. In common law systems, decisions of the courts are acknowledged as law on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. This is known as the doctrine of precedent, or stare decisis. The idea is that similar cases should reach similar results, a principle rooted in the legal philosophy of John Locke.

Other systems of law are based on legislative statutes and constitutional documents. The legal framework in which civil disputes are conducted is largely defined by the laws of each country, which in turn are aligned with international treaties and recommendations from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

In some jurisdictions, religion acts as an implicit source of law. This includes Jewish halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law. However, even in these cases the governing legal system is usually further elaborated through human interpretation and reasoning processes such as Qiyas, Ijma and analogy.

The law is also a concept that encompasses all forms of punishment and protection. For example, tort law provides compensation to victims of wrongful conduct, such as accidents or defamation. Criminal law punishes those who commit offences against the state, such as armed robbery or murder.

Some philosophers seek to define the law in terms of morality. This approach has been influential in the work of Jeremy Bentham, who argued that laws are commands backed by the threat of sanction from a sovereign that people have a natural habit of obeying. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Max Weber, have argued that laws reflect immutable laws of nature or human reason. The latter theory is sometimes called natural law. Whether or not a law reflects morality, it is essential to the functioning of any modern society. It is the foundation upon which political democracy rests and without it, a society could not survive for long. For this reason, the study of the law is often considered a core academic subject. It is also a popular career choice for many people. Some examples of careers that involve the study of law include being a lawyer, a police officer or a judge.

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