Law is a body of rules that regulate behavior in society. It has been variously described as a science and an art. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator between people. It is a complex phenomenon and there are many layers to its story. In some senses, we need to look at law from a philosophical point of view in order to understand the deeper dimensions.
One way to approach this is to consider the concept of natural law, a theory that posits that laws are generally based on moral and ethical principles. Another way is to look at the legal system as a whole, which includes the institutions of government and the law schools that train future lawyers. Moreover, we need to look at the legal cosmos as it presently is and examine how it works in practice.
Regardless of how we approach the problem, it is important to recognize that the nature of law depends on the political context in which it is created. The political landscape is very different from nation to nation. Some governments are dictatorial and unresponsive to their citizens. Others are liberal and democratic. These variations are reflected in the kinds of legal systems that exist.
A general distinction can be made between civil law jurisdictions in which a central legislative body codifies and consolidates its laws, and common law systems in which judges make up the law. Historically, there was also significant influence from religious law, especially from Islam and Judaism. In some cases, a particular religious doctrine provides a basis for a large proportion of the law in the country concerned.
The fundamental question of what is meant by “law” has a profound impact on how we approach the problem of regulating human behavior. Philosophers have sifted through a wide variety of ideas and approaches in their attempts to clarify the meaning of this term.
A central issue in the debate is whether or not we can distinguish between the “laws” that are written down and the “rules of law” that are lived out in daily life. Some philosophers, like Eugen Ehrlich, have attempted to separate this distinction by looking at the “living law,” that is, those normative rules of social behavior that are binding on all citizens.
There are also those who, such as Holmes, have developed an ontological understanding of law, that is, they see it as immanent and probabilistic. This understanding of the nature of law makes it seem as if it is merely an instrument for social control. This is often referred to as the “bettabilitarian” understanding of law. Other theorists have sought to define a more ethical and moral basis for the law. However, all philosophical theories of the nature of law are to some extent a product of their time and place of development. They are also a reflection of the kind of legal system and culture they are trying to describe.