What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.

Among its purposes are to keep peace, maintain the status quo, and protect individuals and groups against majorities. It can also serve to impose orderly social change. It is not always easy to achieve these goals, however. For example, authoritarian regimes may keep the peace but oppress minorities and prevent social change. The question of what constitutes law is therefore of great importance, as are questions about the proper role of the state.

Many disciplines study aspects of law, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. The most important subject areas are criminal law, civil law and international law. Civil law includes fields such as torts (when someone’s property is harmed), contracts, employment and family. International law deals with issues such as human rights and the treatment of aliens.

The meaning of law is complex and varies according to the context in which it is used. A central theme is the relationship between law and morality. John Austin’s utilitarian definition equates it with “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of natural law is more equivocal, implying an unchanging set of laws of nature that are moral and universal.