What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules that governs the conduct of people and groups. These rules are enforced through the state and are usually enforceable by threat or punishment. Law also covers a range of other functions in society, such as solving recurrent coordination problems, proclaiming symbolic expressions of communal values and resolving disputes about facts. However, a central feature of law is its coercive aspect and the fact that it can punish people for violating its rules.

The meaning of the term ‘law’ is contested and has been debated in philosophical writings from ancient times to the present day. In the modern world, there are five main families of views on what the law is.

One view takes jurisprudence to be a form of conceptual analysis, which is to say that theories of the law aim to provide an account of some concept of the law. This approach is often associated with Hart’s influential work, The Concept of Law (1994).

Another view, which was a major influence on the legal realist school in the early twentieth century, is that laws are simply rules that govern the behavior of people and groups, albeit with some indeterminacy about how those rules will actually affect outcomes. This view is sometimes referred to as naturalistic jurisprudence.

A third approach is that of the jurisprudential idealists, who maintain that the law is the set of rules and principles that embody a fundamental moral code that guides human behaviour. This view was strongly influenced by the utilitarian theories of John Bentham and is also called natural law theory. It contrasts with the more reductive accounts of law, such as that of John Austin, which argue that the normative nature of law simply consists in its ability to predict that subjects will react hostilely to deviations from its rules and their presumed desire to avoid sanctions.

The fourth view is that of the rationalists, who see laws as the result of the elaboration of ideas, and as a consequence of the application of reason to those ideas. This is also known as logical jurisprudence.

Other ways of thinking about the law include the view that it consists of rules governing the relationship between citizens and the state, such as constitutional law; labour law, which deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade unions; and property law, which concerns ownership of land and other assets. Other important areas of law include immigration law and the rights of stateless individuals; family law, which covers marriage and divorce; civil procedure, which sets out how courts should proceed in a case; and evidence law, which establishes what materials are admissible to court cases.