What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that governs the behavior of people, groups, or societies. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate. Law is created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, to establish morality and order, and to protect individuals against the excesses of others. Law consists of both negative (prohibitions) and positive (permissive) elements. Negative law is enforceable through punishment, while positive law is enforced by a court.

Laws can be either natural or man-made. Natural laws are derived from and sanctioned by God, while man-made laws are devised by humans as they see fit. Both types of laws may be interpreted and applied in different ways. For example, the Bible may command people to worship only one God, while other religious groups may find that command unenforceable due to a belief that there are multiple Gods.

Humans have developed a variety of legal systems to help ensure justice, peace, and economic stability. Some nations are more successful in accomplishing these goals than others, however. For example, an authoritarian government can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may also oppress minorities or political opponents. The United States, for instance, has an independent judiciary that hears grievances against the government and aims to provide equal protection under the law to all citizens.

A key principle of law is that all persons are equal before the law. This principle, embodied in the Constitution’s Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, was an essential element in the founding of America. A common law system, originating in England during the eighteenth century, influenced much of the early American legal tradition. Sir William Blackstone’s exposition of the common law, Commentaries on the Laws of England, was the primary text for studying the law during the early years of our nation.

Rights-based theories of law hold that the primary function of law is to protect individual rights. These theories are characterized by a focus on a person’s right to demand or claim a legal benefit or service from others. Rights that are actively exercised determine what the relevant parties ought to do (privilege-rights), can do (power-rights), or cannot do (immunity-rights).

Other scholars, such as Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall, promote a theory of law centered on duties. Feinberg and Darwall argue that a legal system that focuses only on rights is morally flawed because such a system fails to consider the role of law in maintaining social change. They support a doctrine called the “demand theory of rights” (Feinberg 1970; 1980: 13-58; Darwall 2006: 17-30). This approach emphasizes the societal value of treating the individual as law’s principal unit of concern.