The Definition of Law


Law is a set of rules created by the state that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It can be enforced and sanctions can be imposed if it is broken or breached. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many different ways. There are a number of different definitions of law. Some see it as a way to govern the behavior of people and some view it as a way to mediate relations between people.

A central issue in the definition of law is the question of its purpose. Some writers have argued that law is intended to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. Others have focused on the power of governments to control the lives and property of citizens, and the dangers that can arise when such powers are abused (e.g., the oppressive regimes of the twentieth century).

Legal historians have often debated the extent to which law reflects morality. John Austin’s utilitarian answer, which dominated legal thinking until the 20th century, defined law as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to men, as political subjects.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of natural law and Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on Law argued that laws should be considered to reflect morality.

The law can be interpreted in different ways by judges or arbitrators. It can also be changed by legislators or through the process of precedent, in which a decision made by an earlier judge is followed by later decisions. In the United States, for example, the law is primarily governed by statutes and caselaw, with some guidance from executive regulations. Cases are carefully read and analyzed to discover the principles of law that they support. This process is called legal case analysis.

Other areas of law include employment, civil rights and privacy. Banking law, which outlines minimum standards for banks and best practices for investment, is an important area of law that regulates the economy. Labor law deals with the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union and includes issues such as workplace safety and fair wages. Administrative law deals with the management of public services and utilities, such as water or energy, and imposes varying levels of social responsibility on private companies doing the work. This type of law can be influenced by a constitution, whether written or tacit. It can also be influenced by the views of Max Weber and other modern sociologists who have reshaped thinking about the extension of law to social life beyond the confines of government. Law can be influenced by the culture, customs and practices of a community, as well as by the political ideology of a nation. Laws are created by political actors who can be influenced by pressure groups, lobbyists and the public’s perception of their role in a society. The resulting laws can have unexpected effects on a society. For example, a public health law may result in a reduction in smoking by reducing the availability of tobacco or a public education law might increase attendance in schools.