What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules created by a group or a state to regulate behavior. It is enforceable through the threat of sanctions if it is violated. This system of laws exists in many different forms and is a fundamental part of any society.

The precise definition of law is a matter of ongoing debate. The word itself is derived from the Old Norse term lag, which means “laying an order” or “fixing a tune.” The laws of a society establish an ordered pattern for human conduct that promotes peace and discourages violence. In the case of civil and criminal laws, these rules are enforced by courts of justice.

People who study law may focus on a particular area, such as international law or family law. These specializations can help them gain a more in-depth understanding of how law is applied in those areas. A more general approach to law might involve examining the social and political context of lawmaking, the role of legal institutions, and the interplay between law and history.

Different philosophers have contributed to the development of a variety of definitions of law. For example, Bentham’s utilitarian theory of law stated that it is a system of commands, backed by the threat of sanction, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. On the other hand, natural lawyers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, believed that law reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature.

Moreover, there are many factors that influence the formation of law and its application in society. These factors include the social and political context in which a law is created, the nature of the authority that promulgates the law, and the way in which a legal decision is reached by a court.

In addition, the way in which a law is written and enforced can have a significant effect on how it is perceived by its recipients. For example, the use of a law that prohibits the killing of women and children in the name of self-defense could result in a significant drop in crime, but it would also entail a great deal of societal upheaval and violence.

Law is a vast field of study, and it can be difficult to find the right entry point for a researcher. Oxford Reference provides concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries to help readers make sense of this complex subject.

For more information on the field of law, see the articles on legal training and the legal profession, legal ethics, and the relationship of law to the social sciences. Other articles address specific areas of the law, such as criminal, civil, and corporate law; constitutional law; commercial law; family law; immigration and nationality law; labor law; property law; and biolaw. See also the articles on constitution; ideology; and political system for more on the relationships between laws and governmental structures. The law is an important part of any society, and the more knowledge about it that one has, the better prepared they will be to live in a law-based world.

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