What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules for governing people and societies. It encompasses written statutes, common law and other legal systems. It also refers to the professions that deal with advising clients on legal matters, representing them in court and giving decisions or punishments. It is a vital part of the social order and has many practical applications in business, security, health and safety and a variety of other areas.

The earliest modern sense of the term law meant “the rule, not of action in general, but of the actions of man”: the precepts by which that most noble of sublunary creatures, who have both reason and free will, are commanded to make use of those faculties for the common regulation of their behavior. Since that time, the chief tool in determining the content of laws has not been logic; it has been experience and the felt necessities of the times, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices that judges share with their fellow men.

In principle, laws should be epistemically accessible-a body of norms promulgated as public knowledge so that ordinary people can study them, internalize them, figure out what they require of them and use them as a framework for their plans and expectations and for settling their disputes with others. This requires independent courts and legal procedures, transparency of government business and accountability of public officials. It also demands a degree of consensus about what makes a good law (e.g. Fuller 1964’s Inner Morality of Law).