What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been variously described as the science and as the art of justice, but its precise definition remains a matter of debate.

In a nation, law serves a number of important functions: it keeps the peace and maintains the status quo; it protects individual rights and minorities from majorities; it promotes social justice and orderly social change; it helps establish the norms that make up a society; it imposes a system of accountability on the government, private actors, and individuals. There are many different legal systems, with the most commonly used ones being civil law and criminal law.

Legal systems that emphasize cooperation between human beings are called civil law, and these have been found in about 60% of the world’s countries. They typically contain concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law, with some influence of canon law and sometimes supplemented or modified by local custom or culture.

Critics of the civil law often argue that its emphasis on cooperation and equality leads to a bias against the individual and against social justice. They also note that some aspects of the law are incompatible with the tenets of democracy, such as equality before the law.

The most important theory of the function of rights is a Hohfeldian position, which asserts that claim-rights determine what right-holders may or must do, and privilege-rights determine what right-objects may or must do (Lyons 1970; Sumner 1987). Power-rights and immunities are likewise Hohfeldian, although they are more active than claim-rights (Sumner 1987: 29-31).

Another theory of the function of rights holds that rights are merely “outcomes” of certain duties, but this view ignores considerations of utility and policy. The most prominent defender of this theory is Joel Feinberg.

A third, more modern theory of the function of rights is a “demand” theory, which emphasizes the capacity or power of right-holders to claim or demand that others perform some act. This view is criticized by some advocates of natural law, who argue that legal rights are incompatible with a moral system of just duties.

Some advocates of this theory, such as Stephen Darwall, argue that rights are a way for individuals to express their rights. They do this in the form of claims or demands that they can pursue, which give rise to obligations or responsibilities on the part of other people to appoint the right-holders to certain activities or to refuse to perform certain actions.

These kinds of claims or demands are a central feature of many human rights laws. They are also the basis of some economic and commercial rights, such as free speech and the right to a fair trial.

In a country with an authoritarian government, the law can be a means of maintaining peace and controlling opposition groups. However, it can also be used to oppress minorities and political opponents (e.g., Burma, Zimbabwe).

A third way to understand the function of law is to consider how it affects the lives of people. For example, laws regulating public services such as water and energy can help ensure that they are delivered in a safe and efficient manner. Alternatively, regulation can be used to help keep companies accountable for their activities.