Law is a system of rules created by social or governmental institutions to govern the actions of individuals and communities. It may be enforced by state sanction, which can include punishment. In general, the law defines what is acceptable and unacceptable in a society. It also provides the framework that ensures a society is well-ordered and peaceful. Law is complex from a methodological viewpoint and raises many questions about equality, fairness, and justice. It is a subject of scholarly inquiry in legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
Law shapes politics, economy, history and society in a variety of ways. It can be categorized into two broad areas: criminal and civil. Criminal law defines what is considered harmful to society and who can be punished for such behavior. Civil law addresses lawsuits between people or organizations and settles disputes. Civil law can be enacted by legislatures, resulting in statutes and regulations, or created through precedent by judges (in common law jurisdictions). It can also be established in religious communities, as is the case with Sharia law.
The law serves four primary purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The first purpose relates to a person’s relationship with his or her fellow citizens. It includes everything from the ability to contract with other persons to the right to vote. The law also protects private property from being taken without just compensation and ensures the safety of citizens on the streets.
Another important function of the law is to keep a person from being abused by a government official. It is for this reason that the framers of the United States Constitution incorporated the principle of separation of powers into our system of laws. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of our government are each given some degree of autonomy so that no one individual can gain absolute power and stand above the law.
Conflicts between individuals and between groups of people are inevitable in a well-ordered society. The law helps to resolve such conflicts through a process that is fair and impartial. For example, if two people have a dispute over the ownership of a piece of land, the courts can decide who owns it by holding a hearing that is open to all parties.
The law is complex from a methodological standpoint, as it is both normative and prescriptive. It establishes how a person ought to behave or what he or she should require from others. It also tells the individual what he or she must do to be deemed lawful and what he or she must not do to avoid punishment. It is this normative character that separates law from empirical sciences like physics or social science, such as psychology or sociology. These distinctions make the study of law particularly challenging. However, it also makes it an exciting field of scholarly investigation.