The Nature of Law

Law is the body of rules, policies, and procedures that governs people’s activities, relationships, and property. Its central functions are to keep the peace, maintain social stability, promote human rights and freedoms, protect minorities from majorities, and provide for orderly social change. The way law serves these functions differs greatly from nation to nation. A nation ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian government may be able to keep the peace and maintain social stability, but it is not likely to protect minority rights or facilitate human rights or free speech. A democratic nation governed by a constitutional democracy may serve these purposes more effectively, but it is also likely to have its own problems with keeping the peace or maintaining social stability and protecting minority rights.

The study of law includes many subfields. Contract law studies agreements to exchange goods or services, and property law defines the ownership of tangible possessions (e.g., land and buildings) as well as intangible possessions such as money and stock shares. Family law is about marriage, divorce, and the rights of children. Criminal law relates to crimes such as murder, assault, and burglary. Administrative law covers the operations of public agencies, such as the police and tax offices, and public utilities. International law addresses the interplay of different national legal systems.

One controversial issue concerning the nature of law is its normative significance. Some scholars, like Hans Kelsen and Max Weber, have argued that the power of coercion is the fundamental factor that makes law “law.” Others, such as H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz, have reshaped thinking about this question by arguing that laws can be analyzed and understood in non-coercive ways.

There are other issues involving the relationship of law to other normative domains, such as morality and social conventions. There is also interest in the role of history in the development of law, and the study of comparative law focuses on how the laws of different nations relate to each other.

Other topics include the legal profession, legal education, and the relationship of law to the biosciences. The nature of law is closely linked to the study of politics, and articles about these subjects often focus on the ways in which the structure and power of a nation-state affect its ability to function effectively as a source of laws and protection for citizens. Other related articles include the political systems of different nations, and the relationships between laws and social issues such as inequality and corruption. In addition, some articles examine the relationship of law to religion and spirituality, and to social institutions such as schools and families. Finally, some articles address the interaction between law and religious doctrines such as the Bible and the Quran. See also constitutional law; religion; terrorism; and human rights.