What Is Law?


Law is a complex concept, touching on a variety of disciplines and ranging in scope from an individual’s right to vote to the international laws that govern trade. Its nature and purpose are a central theme in political science, philosophy, religion, and social studies. Law can be the basis for a morality and the foundation of an economy, as well as the means of achieving justice (the proper distribution of goods/privileges and burdens in a society).

In a broad sense, law is the system of rules and principles prescribed by a government or recognized by a social group as binding on its members. Legal systems differ from nation to nation. In most, the authority to make and enforce laws is vested in an elected legislature or a constitutional monarchy; the ability of citizens to elect their representatives and to modify the constitution is often considered the “bedrock” of democracy.

Throughout history, the development of law has been closely linked to the evolution of human society. In many cases, new developments in science, technology, and communication have led to the need for a more formalized legal system to govern the growing complexity of human activity. In the modern world, many people live in societies that are not democratic, and there is a strong desire to reshape existing systems of law to reflect more egalitarian values and practices.

The study of law is also related to a wide variety of fields, such as history, philosophy, ethics, sociology, and anthropology. It is important for the practice of law, and for public debate about the merits of various legal systems. It is a core subject in university programs of liberal arts and social sciences, and it is a common topic of discussion amongst politicians, lawyers, and the general public.

Laws are based on a variety of sources, including religious precepts, custom, and the precedent of previous court decisions. For example, Islamic and Jewish law are largely derived from religious scripture and jurisprudence; the Talmud and the Hadith are key texts for Judaism and Islam respectively. However, such a system generally requires a great deal of human elaboration to give it structure, meaning, and practicality.

The Greek term for law, nomos, was used in a very general context, and it was Plato (428/427-348/347 bce) who first made philosophical claims about the nature of law. His dialogue Crito is the source of several enduring ideas in law; his later work, Laws, makes scattered references to a philosophy of law but fails to develop a fully-developed idea.

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