What is Law?


Law is a system of rules, recognised and enforced by a state or other authoritative body to govern the behaviour of people and companies. It provides a basis for resolving disputes and a source of inspiration for social commentary, philosophy and economic analysis. Its precise definition is a matter of debate and is sometimes viewed as a combination of a science, an art and a morality.

Legal studies are the study of systems of laws and how they work, and are an important part of many careers including those of lawyers, judges and public officials. It is a highly respected profession and often the route to a high salary in an international law firm or other organisation.

The word ‘law’ comes from the Latin term legis, meaning a thing that is ordained or set by an authority. Law can cover any number of subjects, from the rights of people to their property and the way in which that property is inherited and passed on, to the laws that govern commercial transactions or taxation. The law can also include the principles that a judge must follow in making decisions and in giving punishments, as well as the general aims and structure of a jurisdiction’s justice system.

One of the more difficult aspects of understanding law is its methodological complexity, which is due to its normative nature. Laws make statements about how people should behave and what they can expect from other people, but these statements lack the objective causality of empirical scientific statements (such as a law of gravity) or even social science ones (like the laws of supply and demand).

In addition to the problems of objectivity, there are the issues that arise when comparing different systems of laws. This is particularly important because of the increasing interdependence of economies and the growing globalisation of commerce. In this context, the difference between civil law jurisdictions, where a central legislative body codifies and consolidates their laws, and common law jurisdictions, where judge-made precedent is binding, can have significant consequences.

Other issues that have shaped thinking on the law include its relationship to political structures and organisations; Max Weber has reshaped thinking on the extension of state power, and modern military, policing and bureaucratic powers pose new challenges for accountability which earlier writers such as Locke and Montesquieu did not consider. For more discussion of these issues, see articles on political theory; history of law; jurisprudence; legal ethics; and law and society. See also criminal law; censorship; and the legal profession.