What Is a Law?


A law is a rule imposed by an authority upon those under its jurisdiction commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong. It is typically permanent as to time and uniform with respect to all persons and locations. It can be either passive or active (i.e., it can determine what rights-holders may do, or privileges or powers they enjoy). It may be based on natural rights (a view often associated with deontological principles that eschew considerations of utility and policy), or it may reflect human rights as recognized by social convention or legal process.

Laws cover a vast array of topics and issues, and there are many different kinds of laws. Some articles explain the structure of laws, while others explore specific aspects of a particular topic. For example, contracts are governed by contract law; criminal laws regulate crimes and the punishment of criminals; and property law identifies people’s rights and duties toward their tangible and intangible possessions.

There are also laws governing the way in which people interact with one another, such as laws that establish rules for commercial transactions, employment, and public services. The law can also encompass societal restrictions on freedom of speech and expression (censorship); laws that protect the rights of the mentally ill or physically disabled; and the law of war, which regulates the conduct of warfare.

While some laws are aimed at protecting the individual, other laws are aimed at promoting a well-ordered society. The law aims to ensure that everyone is treated fairly, and it helps keep the peace by resolving disputes between individuals. For example, if two people both claim ownership of a piece of land, the courts can decide who owns it. The law can also help prevent social injustices, such as discrimination and harassment.

A law can also protect the environment by regulating environmental policies and establishing standards for environmental protection. The law can also limit pollution, and it can prohibit the use of deadly chemicals.

The law can also limit corruption by requiring that all state officials be impartial and follow the highest ethical standards. The law can also prevent fraud by providing civil remedies for fraudulent transactions and imposing sanctions against those who commit financial fraud.

Laws also govern the activities of governmental agencies, including police and military forces, and they can be regulated by statute and constitutional law. Laws can also be framed by religious, ideological, and philosophical views. For examples, Blackstone’s view of the common law was that it reflected moral rights that do not depend on enforcement or social recognition. Other philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, promoted the idea that law should be rooted in what he considered to be good moral consequences and thus eschew utilitarian concerns. He viewed the transplanting of natural rights into law as “mischievous nonsense” (Bentham 1843b: 501).

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