What Is Law?


The law shapes politics, economics, history, society and social life in countless ways. It is the source of much scholarly inquiry and raises fundamental questions about the nature of good and evil, social order, and justice. In the most general sense, law is a system of rules created and enforced by human beings and enacted by governmental institutions to regulate and organize their societies.

In a modern, developed country like the United States, law is the sum of a variety of distinct but interrelated legal fields and disciplines. These include contract law, property law (which determines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property such as land and buildings), criminal law (which governs a person’s behavior in relation to others and the consequences of violating these laws) and civil law (which settles disputes between private parties).

There are also specialized legal areas, such as intellectual property law, international law and constitutional law, tax law and banking law. Law is a rich subject of study for scholars in many different disciplines, including philosophy, history, ethics, sociology and economic analysis.

A major function of the law is to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and protected. As a result, the law protects against oppression, discrimination and unfair treatment. It also helps to ensure that the government is held accountable and provides checks and balances on power, such as a free press and procedures for peacefully transitioning leadership.

While the precise definition of law has been a topic of debate for centuries, it is generally agreed that the term encompasses a set of rules that are binding on society and enforceable by governmental or other institutions. These laws may be written, unwritten or verbal, and can cover a variety of topics, from morality to natural processes.

Another aspect of the law is the principle of legal precedent, which means that a court’s decision in one case can have an impact on other cases with similar facts. For example, if a judge makes a ruling in a case with specific facts that are similar to a dispute before the court at a later date, the earlier ruling will usually be followed unless there is some reason to reject it, such as evidence that it was decided incorrectly. This is known as common law or stare decisis in the US. Similarly, rulings made by higher courts, such as the supreme court of a jurisdiction, are binding on lower courts in that same jurisdiction.