The Concept of Law

Law is a system of rules and practices that is enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law is a complex idea which encompasses a broad range of subjects, from judicial viewpoints on justice, morality and order, to societal views on reason and honesty. The study of law also includes a wide variety of fields, from the legal profession and jurisprudence to constitutional law, international law, civil rights and criminal laws.

What distinguishes law from mere suggestions or good advice is that there is enforcement and consequence. For example, if someone suggests that you eat five fruits and vegetables a day, they might just be suggesting a healthy diet; if you commit a crime such as embezzlement or theft, the consequences could include fines and imprisonment. The concept of law therefore is a fundamental component of human civilization.

Different societies develop different approaches to law. For example, the Islamic Sharia and Jewish Halakha are legal systems which provide an explicitly religious basis for their laws. In contrast, the law of the United States and Japan are based on a common law philosophy which derives its laws from judicial decisions in individual cases. This approach gives more weight to precedent, a principle which guarantees that future cases will reach similar conclusions.

Generally, the purpose of law is to achieve a number of goals: keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. The effectiveness of a nation’s law in meeting these purposes is, however, affected by the political landscape which largely determines who makes and enforces its laws. The most stable and democratic nations tend to have well-functioning laws, while the most unstable and authoritarian nations often lack the necessary functionality of law.

The nature of law differs from one culture to another, but the broadest definition of law encompasses any set of guidelines that are enforceable by some type of authority. For example, laws may be enacted by a legislative assembly, which results in statutes; or they might be promulgated by the executive branch through decrees and regulations. The law may also be interpreted and established by judges through the doctrine of stare decisis, whereby a judge’s decision is binding on subsequent courts.

In addition to governing how a society functions, the law can govern how that society interacts with the world around it. For example, contract law concerns the agreement between parties in a commercial transaction; tort law addresses damages for personal injury, such as automobile accidents or defamation of character; and civil and criminal procedure address what steps must be taken to ensure a citizen’s right to a fair trial and hearing. Law can also apply to a range of issues in science and technology, including patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. The relationship between law and politics is a complex issue, and the topic of political law is discussed in more detail in separate articles.