What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. The precise definition of law is a matter of long-standing debate, with some people defining it as a science and others arguing that it is an art.

A law can be a statute, or act passed by the legislature; an executive order or decree; or a decision of a court. Statutes are generally more formal than judicial decisions; but the word “law” may be used to designate both types.

In common law legal systems, decisions by judges are explicitly acknowledged as law on equal footing with legislative statutes, and the doctrine of stare decisis holds that future courts must follow decisions of similar cases in the same courts.

Constitutional law, on the other hand, is a system of laws that have been written by a governing body and then enforced by that government. Such laws usually enact or amend the existing law, and they may be either mandatory or optional.

The word law is derived from the Hebrew verb torah, meaning “to command” or “instruct.” In both the Old and New Testaments, the term typically refers to the commands of God as outlined in the Mosaic covenant, but it may also be used to describe particular commands or requirements that apply to specific individuals.

Legislative and administrative laws, which are typically based on the concept of natural law, provide the foundation for many civil and political rights. They govern how a society operates and establish rules for the proper conduct of its citizens, as well as for its administration of business, finance, and commerce.

Various legal theories and techniques are used to interpret the law, including legal syllogism in civil law systems and analogy and argumentative theories in common law jurisdictions. Some argue that statutory interpretation should be left to the judges, while other believe it is the responsibility of legislators and the government to make sure that the law is understood and applied.

Some scholars claim that law is a form of philosophy, in that it describes what should be done or not done in any given situation. This theory is often referred to as philosophical legal theory, and it has been embraced by many different kinds of philosophers.

For instance, the Hohfeldian theory of law (Hart 1982: 183-4) and the Will Theory of justice (MacCormick 1977: 189; Sumner 1987: 68-70) both fit into a view of law as a kind of morality that regulates conduct. These theories argue that the law’s purpose is to ensure a person’s fair treatment, protects her rights, and enables her to enjoy life in a free society.

The legal theory of choice is another important theoretical approach that fits well into a view of law as a form of morality that regulates conduct. The will theory suggests that rights give people a measure of normative control over themselves or others, and that this control functions to protect one’s right to act, thereby making him “small-scale sovereign” over certain domains (Hart 1982: 183; 1983: 35).

Hohfeldian rights are most likely to be those that are for or in some sense entitle right-holders. These include: claims entitling one to immunity from harm, claim-rights or privileges enabling one to exercise his or her powers, and immunities protecting the free exercise of these privileges and powers.