What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules and principles that governs human conduct. It contains commands and prohibitions, rewards and punishments. It establishes rights, duties and obligations between people and between nations. It sets standards for behavior, and provides a framework for resolving disputes and protecting freedoms. It is a fundamental aspect of civilization.

The word law derives from the Latin term lege, meaning “to lay down” or “to order.” The laws of a society are embodied in a written or oral constitution. The law of a country is a collection of statutes and regulations that establishes a body of standards, procedures and policies that define the way things are done in a given area, such as banking or aviation. The law is the basis of a nation’s economic and political structure, and its enforcement is central to the stability of a state.

Different nations have different concepts of what constitutes law, but most recognize that there are four main functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. For example, aviation law deals with all regulations, safety standards, and procedures related to flying an aircraft. It is framed by national civil aviation acts and laws, which are generally aligned with the recommendations or mandatory standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO.

In most countries, laws are passed and enforced by a government agency (such as the police or the military). Government agencies have a responsibility to act within the law, but they also have discretion to use their own judgment in situations that are not covered by established policy. A government’s decisions about the right course of action are guided by a variety of considerations, including public interest, morality and cost.

Some commentators suggest that a law should be understood as something more than the power of a sovereign to issue orders, backed by threats. However, this view has critics. If a law simply reflects the interests or whims of those in power, then it is not really a law. The Nazis killed six million Jews, for example, because of their arbitrary laws, and Saddam Hussein tortured minority Sunni Muslims and executed political opponents.

A second approach, called legal positivism, views the law as a set of rules that express a sovereign’s will or moral stance. This approach has its own problems, especially because of the fact that humans are not perfect, and judges, attorneys and lawmakers will often disagree with each other. Moreover, not all law is expressed in writing; some is developed through customary practices and carries the force of law without the formality of a written document. In other cases, such as banking or family law, there are both federal and state laws that coexist. Similarly, in areas such as aviation and railroads, there are powerful laws at the federal level that preempt most state law. At the same time, there is a great deal of overlap between federal and state laws in other areas, such as antitrust, trademark and labor law.