What Is Law?


Law is a body of rules established by a sovereign, or by society, to regulate conduct. Laws set standards of behaviour for citizens and enforce them through government agencies, such as a parliament that holds the legal power to enact laws binding on the citizenry; a judge who adjudicates lawsuits brought before it; and an agency – often called a police department – that maintains public order and protects people and property.

The meaning of law is debated, but almost all theorists agree that it serves an end – usually social, not individual – and that its ultimate objective is to secure justice. This can be understood as either distributive or corrective justice, depending on whether it aims to ensure that the benefits of the state are distributed fairly among citizens (distributive) or that wrongs are remedied (corrective).

In practice, law lays down the minimum standards for behaviour in a given situation and then punishes those who fail to obey them. Laws are based on normative concepts, so they contain ‘ought’ statements. This means that, for example, it is illegal to damage someone’s possessions without justification because of the harm caused by the act and because it infringes a basic right to privacy.

There are many types of laws:

Business law, for instance, covers the rules that apply to starting up and running a company. It includes everything from how to form a business to the requirements for taxation and employment. Another type of law is criminal law, which sets the penalties for offences against the public, such as murder and robbery.

The law may also govern the use of land and property, such as in planning legislation. It may also regulate commercial transactions. It is often broken down into different areas of law, including torts, contract, criminal, constitutional and family law.

A key part of law is knowing who has the power to make and enforce laws. This is determined by political and military strength, and differs from nation to nation. Nevertheless, revolts and revolutions against existing laws are common and, if successful, change the political landscape. The ability of a nation to create, protect and execute laws is therefore important for its economic and social stability. This is why the development of good government is such a significant part of international relations.