The Nature of 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, but it generally is conceived to involve a body of norms that operate impersonally and without coercive force, as well as the institutions and procedures that are needed to uphold these laws and ensure their integrity. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways, and it is vital to human flourishing.

Many people take the idea of a rule-based, just and equitably administered political community seriously, and they place a high value on the concept of “rule of law.” This term refers to the underlying principles that should govern the conduct of a political community, whether it is a country, an institution, or even a person. This concept of rule of law is embodied in many different legal disciplines, including the philosophy of law, political science, history, sociology and economics.

The nature of law is highly complex and its study involves a wide range of perspectives and methods. It is a discipline that operates in an extremely unique and special way, which sets it apart from other areas of knowledge. The main reasons for this lie in the nature of law itself.

Unlike, say, a scientific law such as the law of gravity, laws of human affairs cannot be empirically verified because of the unique complexities of the human world. They are also, by their nature, not descriptive but rather prescriptive and in a sense pre-emptive. Laws tell us how we should behave, what they require of us and what they prohibit. Moreover, they are binding.

This feature of law has been a source of fascination for many philosophers and has inspired debate on the proper place of law in human life. It is a feature that has shaped thinking on such topics as the nature of authority (see legitimacy) and justice (see rights and justice). Modern ideas about law have also been influenced by Max Weber’s reshaping of thinking on the extension of the state, with the rise of policing and bureaucracies that extend into people’s daily lives. For a discussion of legal ethics, see morality of law; for an exposition of social restrictions and their enforcement, see censorship, crime and punishment and law and order.