What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created by a particular place or authority meant for the purpose of keeping the peace and security of society. It is an integral part of every civilization and is often seen as the cornerstone of democracy. It is usually written down in a constitution or other legal document that defines the overall framework of a country, which is then expanded upon with laws specific to various subjects. The main functions of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights.

People have many different views of what law is, with the precise definition a subject of longstanding debate. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that law is simply “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by contrast, argued that it reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature.

The law is largely a product of political action and, as such, varies greatly between nations. The laws of a nation can be made by group legislatures, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges using precedent, which is common in most countries with common law systems. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, which are enforceable by courts in some jurisdictions. Law is also set by international bodies, such as treaties on trade, the environment, and military action.

Some of the fundamental aspects of law are that it reflects the values of a community, is based on rationality and fairness, and provides for checks and balances on the powers of government. Most countries today have constitutions which lay out the overall framework of their societies, and then create additional laws for specific areas. The law covers everything from how people can marry to what types of work they can do, from health and safety standards to how evidence is presented in court.

Most of these laws are enacted by a legislative body, such as a parliament or congress, which is elected (chosen) by the governed citizens. Other parts of the law are established through judicial decisions, which can be appealed in higher courts, until a supreme court is reached. Some of these laws are religiously derived, such as Jewish halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, or Christian canon law. Others are rooted in historical practices, such as Indian Hindu law and British common law.