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, but the general consensus is that it includes any rule that binds people or imposes responsibilities upon them. Law is generally enforceable through social or governmental institutions, which can enforce it by using the power of force, for example by imposing fines or imprisonment. Law encompasses a broad variety of disciplines and fields, such as criminal, civil, and international law.

The main functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The latter function is closely tied to the concept of property: most laws governing ownership are about the affinity between individual persons and certain “things.” Thus, in legal theory, property law typically emphasizes the concept of property rights as a central point of interest.

However, many legal philosophers have emphasized the role of extra-legal considerations in determining what law is and ought to be. This has led to the development of theories of legal justification that stress the need for courts and agencies to articulate and justify their decisions in statutory, factual, scientific, or technocratic terms. For instance, Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall are prominent defenders of a theory sometimes called the “claim-rights” approach to legal justification. They argue that it is immoral to create a legal system of just duties without correlative rights because the former is unenforceable, while the latter does not provide any practical guidance about what might happen in particular cases.