What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that society or government develops to control crime, business agreements, and social relationships.

The term “law” is derived from the Latin word legitiam, meaning “obligation” or “duty.” It has come to be applied to a wide range of matters that are legally governed and are expected to be upheld by individuals, organizations, or societies. These include laws governing criminal behavior, such as the crime of murder or fraud in banking, and regulations that govern social relations, such as the prohibition of obscenity or harassment.

Legal rights are norms of action-guiding (Raz 1979: 105, 112), and typically include features more dominant in those found in legal normative systems than in those of non-legal institutions. These features derive from law’s relative greater social importance; law’s claim to supremacy over other institutional normative systems under law’s jurisdiction; the far greater range of activities that can and typically do fall under law’s domain; law’s compulsoriness; and, law’s commonly greater use of remedies, sanctions, and violence (Raz 1979: 115-121; Sumner 1987: 70-79).

In legal terms, a right is a norm of action-guiding that is either enforceable or not enforceable, as well as determining what actions right-holders may or cannot take. These norms typically include claims, privileges, and powers (Raz 1994: 255-259).

Claims, privileges, and powers determine what right-holders may or cannot do, whereas immunities limit the power of right-holders to change certain rights (Lyons 1970; Sumner 1987: 27-31). Loosely speaking, a legal power is an ability over another to alter aspects of that person’s normative position and/or to create new ones.

Some legal norms exhibit Hohfeldian forms of rights, such as an immunity from inheriting property on the grounds of one’s gender, a claim-right to be persecuted by state authorities, or a power-right to die of starvation. These do not necessarily qualify as legal rights, however.

Many people believe that rights are rooted in natural laws, that is, that they do not depend on enforcement or social convention, or recognition; a view originating in the classical natural law tradition.

Those who think that law should be based on rights argue that it should be orientated towards the ideal of treating each person as its primary unit of concern.

While this idea of a legal system committed to rights is an interesting one, it is not without its problems.

For starters, it is unclear whether the language of “rights” in law makes any sense. In fact, it is common to argue that such language of rights is empty formalistic rhetoric eschewing considerations of utility and policy, and that it is only a convenient way of reversing law’s usual orientation to practical application and human behavior.

It is also difficult to understand how a system of justice can be made a better and fairer place for all by emphasizing the value of individual freedoms.

A system of justice must be able to deal with a wide range of problems and must be accessible, fair, and efficient. It must also be clear, publicized, and stable, and apply evenly to all members of a community. It must also be regulated and enforced by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals.