What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by society that are enforced by the state. Often the term “law” refers to codified laws, but it can also include informal and uncodified systems of law. It is the force that holds enforceable consequences for violating rules, such as fines or imprisonment. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator of relations among people.

The exact nature of law is a subject of long-standing debate. It is generally agreed that laws govern human activities and protect fundamental rights. They may be made by a legislative body, resulting in statutes; by executive decree or regulation, resulting in executive orders and regulations; or through court case law, as in common-law jurisdictions. In the United States, federal law consists of Acts of Congress, treaties ratified by the Senate, regulations issued by the executive branch and case law from the United States Supreme Court. State laws regulate activities at the state and local levels and largely overlap with the federal law.

Different philosophers have offered various definitions of law, with the utilitarian theory of Jeremy Bentham being the most prominent in Western culture. In this view, law is “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that law reflects innate principles that are a part of the human condition.

Critics of the utilitarian view point out that it tends to ignore societal considerations and fails to recognize that some activities are morally right or wrong, and that the role of the law should be to promote those values. They also argue that it does not adequately account for the power of the state or its coercive nature. The rule of law is a broader concept than law itself, and it refers to the degree to which a state’s institutions are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated and equally enforced, and that respect core human, property and procedural rights.

In addition to legal systems based on written and unwritten law, there are religiously influenced laws such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, which are explicitly based on religious precepts. There are also other forms of law such as international customary law, derived through practice and that has evolved over time, and Christian canon law which survives in some church communities. In countries that were colonized by continental European nations, civil law traditions largely persist, although they may not be codified as such. For example, the Civil Code of Egypt has had a strong influence in Africa and the Middle East, and the Roman-Dutch law still exists on some Pacific islands. The civil law tradition also survives in countries that have a colonial heritage but have become independent. The country of France has a significant civil law tradition, for example. In addition, other societies use religious or culturally specific sources of law such as the Judaism of the Jews, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.