What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that govern human interaction. The law defines what is right and wrong, imposes duties, and provides punishments. It is objective as to its content, permanent as to its scope, uniform in its application, and equal in its treatment of all persons. It serves a number of important functions, such as preventing war and preserving peace, protecting minorities against majorities, maintaining property, ensuring equality before the law, and providing a framework for social change. In most nations the law is made and enforced by a sovereign, which has political power and may also command military force. There are many ways to make laws, and the law is very different in each nation. The legal landscape is influenced by the culture and history of the nation. Some governments are more stable and rule justly, while others are authoritarian or oppressive.

Law may be distinguished from Natural Law, a body of moral principles that do not depend on enforcement or recognition by the state. The term natural law has been used for centuries to describe a set of values and norms that are inherent in human nature, derived from common sense, and recognized by the majority of people as valid. The concept of natural rights has influenced the development of the law of nations, and has provided a foundation for jurisprudence, ethics, and philosophy.

Some philosophers and jurists have opposed the idea of a natural law, and have advocated that law should reflect good outcomes rather than a moral code. Jeremy Bentham, for example, branded the transplanting of natural rights into law as “mischievous nonsense.”

Legal justification is the process by which a legal norm gains its status as such. The justification for a legal right typically flows from other legal norms, or from the fact that a particular factual situation warrants a certain legal response. For instance, the claim-right of a child to inherit an estate is based on the general legal rule that “every person has a right in his/her own good name” (Lyons 1994: 11).

A key aspect of law is its authority and legitimacy. It must be clear, publicized, and stable; it must ensure equality before the law, and protect property and privacy. Justice must be delivered timely and fairly by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals. The legal system must be accessible to all, and should reflect the makeup of the community it serves. It is the duty of the courts to hear disputes between the parties and enforce the law.