How to Define Law

Law is the system of rules that a society or government develops and enforces to deal with things such as crime, business agreements, and social relationships. A legal system must be able to provide clear, understandable, and stable rules that are applied consistently. The rules must be applied in a way that is fair to people of different backgrounds and social classes. They should be easily accessible, and the system must have mechanisms to prevent abuse of power.

Law can be defined in many different ways, because laws exist at different levels of a society. A law can be a legislative statute, a judicial decision, or even a custom or tradition. Some philosophers have written books describing different ideas about what law is, and there are ongoing debates about how to define it.

Some legal systems, called common law, include both legislative statutes and judicial decisions as laws. In these systems, judicial decisions are binding on lower courts, and the principle of stare decisis (Latin for “to stand by decisions”) ensures that cases with similar facts reach the same result.

Other legal systems, called civil law, are based on concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law, with some influence of canon law and local custom or culture. Civil law systems are found on all continents and cover about 60% of the world. These systems allow a greater degree of flexibility for the judiciary to respond to social change and new needs through interpretation and creative jurisprudence. They also usually have clearer expression of rights and duties, and a more limited role for legislatures.

A third group of legal systems is called natural law, based on the idea that there are certain principles, or laws of nature, that govern human affairs. This concept emerged in ancient Greek philosophy in conjunction with the notion of justice, but did not become a major part of Western thought until the 17th century. Philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Austin advanced utilitarian theories of law that emphasize the importance of morality in making laws.

A law can also be a person’s personal code of conduct or a set of guiding principles that they follow. This can be a good thing, such as when someone follows their conscience and refuses to vote for a particular candidate, or a bad thing, like when a person breaks the law and commits a crime. When someone is described as being a law unto themselves, it means they follow their own inclinations and disregard established mores. For example, a person may break the law by making obscene phone calls or financing a political party without following the campaign laws. This kind of law-breaking can be very dangerous. It can lead to gangs, crime, and war. It is important for any society to have a well-functioning law enforcement and judicial system to punish criminals, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights. Without these laws, a society could collapse into anarchy and a Hobbesian war of all against all.