Law is a system of rules that regulates the conduct of a community and enforces those rules through penalties. This definition is usually derived from the idea that law is distinct from other social behavioral norms, such as customs and morals, which are not binding but merely advisory and often have no sanctioning mechanism. Moreover, law has a clear connection to authority, which distinguishes it from other behavioral norms in that it is typically enforced by means of sanctions that may entail coercion or physical force.
As the study of law develops, it is usually viewed in various ways. Its role in a society can be seen as serving different purposes, such as maintaining peace, providing justice, preserving the status quo, and promoting social change. Law also enables people to participate in society as citizens rather than as subjects of their own social or cultural groups, and it allows individuals to take responsibility for their actions without reference to differences in status or reputation.
For some, the importance of law is its ability to solve social conflicts by establishing a common standard for all participants. In prestate societies, the prevailing method for solving conflicts was through negotiations or through the use of physical force. With the rise of modern states, however, laws were established to prevent or overcome conflict through judicial proceedings and the imposition of sanctions for violations. The emergence of the state and the judicial institution led to a greater focus on the production of legal rules and the institution of lawmaking, which resulted in a concentration of power in the hands of the ruling classes.
Whether or not law has the potential to solve the problems of society, most agree that it should be interpreted and applied in an ethical and moral manner. Many cultures have long traditions of interpreting the law, and these traditions are typically based on a set of abstract principles that can be traced back to the origins of Stoicism or other ancient philosophies. The notion of a natural law grew out of these traditions and was adopted by the ruling elites of many states, including the Romans.
In some countries, such as the United States, the foundation of the law is built on a series of precedents, or case laws, that are compiled and used by judges in cases that come before them. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law tradition that is based on codes that explicitly specify the rules that judges must follow to arrive at a decision in a case.
At the federal level, a relatively small number of statutes govern national situations, while others, such as antitrust and trademark law, have a mix of federal and state legislation. In the United States, a judge’s interpretation of the meaning of a statute or regulation has the force of law under the doctrine of stare decisis. For a discussion of the relationship between law and political structures, see constitution; ideology; and political party.