What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules and procedures by which an individual, a society, or an authority can regulate conduct. It includes a broad array of legal rights and responsibilities, including those that can be enforced by the state and those that are private.

Law can keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change. A country may enact laws to accomplish these goals, or it might rely on international agreements and customs.

Some of these laws can be imposed through state enactments such as statutes and regulations; others are created through executive orders, court decrees or precedent. Some are created by individual citizens, through contracts and other private legal arrangements.

The word “law” is derived from the Latin nomos, which means “obligation.” It refers to the commands and requirements that God imposed on Moses at Mount Sinai. In both the Old and New Testaments, the word law refers to the Mosaic covenant.

Definition and Examples

Often, the word law can be used as a synonym for ‘duty’ (i.e., the obligation to obey), but there is a wide range of possible interpretations and it is sometimes difficult to determine precisely which word best fits. For example, ‘duty’ is more frequently associated with a moral duty, while ‘law’ can also be viewed as an obligation to follow a set of rules or policies.

Many people believe that law is a social institution designed to serve certain social purposes, such as keeping the peace or protecting minorities against majorities. Some legal systems are better suited for these purposes than others.

In a law-governed society, there are generally two types of norms: substantive and procedural. Substantive norms, such as claims, privileges, and powers, affect what parties may do or cannot do under certain circumstances. Procedural norms, such as immunity or notice of official decision-making, affect how the parties can interact with one another.

Correlative duties are a type of law that is designed to serve both the interests of the law-governed society and those of its individual members. These duties often involve the imposing of remedial duties on members if they violate certain obligations.

Some of these laws are based on the idea that people have rights and that a government has obligations to protect them. These rights often include civil and human rights, which are meant to be safeguarded against injustice.

A number of legal theories exist to explain the role that rights play in law and how they are supposed to function. Some of these theories focus on the ‘demand theory’ of rights, which holds that law is motivated by the capacity or power of right-holders to claim or demand.

Other theories, such as the ‘preemptory’ or ‘threshold’ theory of rights, hold that rights are designed to set normative “thresholds” that exclude many but not all conflicting reasons. This ‘preemptory’ quality of rights makes them relatively defeasible, especially in practice. However, this view is controversial and not always supported by scholarly work.