What Is Law?


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It can serve such purposes as keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities and facilitating orderly social change. It can be shaped by constitutions, written or tacit; by the customs and practices of legal professionals; and by the institutions, communities and partnerships that make up civil society.

Law can be defined in a variety of ways, with a common approach emphasizing its social control and coerciveness. John Austin’s utilitarian definition of law is “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Natural lawyers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau believe that laws are rooted in an innate morality.

Other definitions focus on the law’s normative role in society. Some, such as Roscoe Pound’s, argue that laws solve recurrent coordination problems and proclaim symbolic expressions of communal values, but they have little to do with law’s coercive aspect or sanction-imposing functions. Others (Greenberg 2014, Hershovitz 2015) challenge law’s normative significance, arguing that other normative domains, such as morality and social conventions, also guide behavior in similar ways and do so without the coercive force of punishment.

Other key aspects of Law include constitutional law, which governs the structure of a nation-state and the rights and duties that citizens have toward one another. Immigration and nationality law deals with the rights of foreigners in a given nation-state as well as the process of becoming and losing citizenship. Contract law defines people’s rights and duties in agreements to exchange goods or services, and property law defines their rights and duties toward tangible and intangible property.

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