What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate and has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. Law serves many purposes, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. It is commonly understood to include a judicial system with judges, barristers and solicitors who are trained to deal with legal issues.

In common law systems, legislative statutes and executive decrees are legally binding, while judicial decisions and precedent provide legal guidance for future cases of similar nature. In contrast, civil law systems typically provide little legal precedent and instead place greater emphasis on the legislative process in the form of bills and regulations. Private individuals may also create legal contracts and arbitration agreements that are legally binding.

One of the most difficult aspects of studying law is the reluctance of scholars and practitioners to define what constitutes law in a universal way. This is because the concept of law, unlike those of physics (the laws of motion), mathematics or social science, is not subject to empirical testing. This reluctance to adopt a unified concept of law is particularly true of legal studies, where there is a schism between judicial ideals and the realities of judging.

For example, the judicial community embraces the Holmesan principle of objectivity and insists that judges must make unbiased judgments, but the judicial reality is otherwise. Judges routinely exhibit biases in their rulings and decisions, and there is a poor concordance between judicial ideals and the betting results of a Robertisan experiment (in which a homeless defendant and a wealthy defendant would be randomly assigned the same outcome).

As such, there are a number of areas of law that are unique in their nature. Space law, for instance, addresses international relations regarding human activities in outer space, while tax and banking law establishes minimum rates of capital investment and rules for best practice in investing. Tort law is about compensating victims when they or their property have been harmed, and criminal law deals with offenses that threaten the safety of an individual or the security of a state or local community.

The most important feature of law, however, is its reliance on the human mind for its interpretation and enforcement. While there are arguments that the judging class should be more diverse, the fact remains that the law as written and applied by judges is largely a reflection of the social and political conditions of the day. This makes the law a distinctly political phenomenon that requires a special framework to study. It is this framework that we will explore in this article.