What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has been a matter of longstanding debate. Regardless of how it is defined, most scholars agree that law has certain core functions: to keep peace, maintain the status quo and protect individual rights. Moreover, it serves to promote social justice and provide orderly ways for societies to change. These functions are often served better by stable governments than by ones prone to arbitrary and violent suppression of minorities or opponents (such as the cases of Burma, Zimbabwe and Iraq under Saddam Hussein).

The concept of law is complex, varying from nation to nation, reflecting the historical context in which laws are made and implemented. The law may be enacted by a legislature, creating statutes; by the executive, in the form of decrees and regulations; or established through judges’ jurisprudence, known as case law in common law jurisdictions. In addition, private individuals may create legally binding contracts, such as arbitration agreements, that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

Historically, the creation of legal systems has been an essentially political process. The dominant idea of a law is that it represents the will of the governing authority. It orders, permits and forbids, rewards and punishes. For example, civil law covers disputes between individuals, such as torts like automobile accidents or defamation of character; whereas criminal law covers crimes against the state itself, whether in the form of a bank robbery or an assassination. Max Weber shaped thinking about the relationship between state and society in defining law’s role as an instrument of coercive power.

In modern times, lawmaking is a highly complicated process. It is influenced by the complexities of societal change, the tension between economic interests and ethical values, and the competing pulls of different political ideologies. This has created a diverse array of legal systems throughout the world.

Some laws are explicitly based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah. In such cases, the religion provides an outline for further human elaboration through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus), which are the building blocks of legal systems in most religious jurisdictions. In other cases, the implication of religion is more subtle. For instance, the Jewish Talmud and Muslim Hadith act as a guide for Shari’ah by establishing principles for judging a case.