Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a subject of long-standing debate. A broad spectrum of activities is covered by the term law, from regulating the exchange of goods and services (contracts) to ensuring safe working conditions in factories. Some of the more well-known areas of law include criminal law, administrative law, property law and corporate law.
Laws can be established either by legislative authority, resulting in statutes or regulations, or by executive decree or order, or by judges through legal precedent, known as common law. Governments can also impose laws through the military, policing and civil service. The development of a legal system can be complex. While laws can be created in a variety of ways, many are based on traditional legal theories.
For example, Jeremy Bentham argued that the term “law” denotes a system of rules governing human conduct that is enforceable through state sanction and that is generally agreed upon by a society. His argument is that the “law” of a country is the aggregate of all legislation passed by the legislature of that country. Other theorists of law, such as John Austin (1790-1859), a major English jurist, developed an analytical approach to the study of law. His approach, called analytic positivism, focuses on the command of the sovereign backed by sanction and gives little place to ideas such as values, morality or idealism and justice.
The purpose of law is to provide the means for society to achieve its social ends, and this may be achieved in a number of different ways. For example, some of the purposes of law are to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) preserve individual rights, (4) protect minorities against majorities and (5) promote social change.
A key principle of law is that it should be universally applicable and equally applicable to all people. However, the application of law can differ between individuals due to differences in beliefs and values. For example, some people do not believe in the death penalty for murder or homosexuality. Others feel that their religion or culture should govern the decisions they make in the workplace.
The main goal of legal interpretation is to determine what the law is and how it applies. Legal interpretation starts with certain input – the laws themselves, as well as the actions and mental states of particular legal actors. It then yields an output – the ‘interpretation’ of those laws. The most famous debate in the field concerns how to get from the input to the output. The debate is often framed by the question ‘what does the law mean?’. The answer to this question is complex, but it includes a wide range of factors including linguistic meaning, legal history and the’moral’ meaning of laws. The’moral’ meaning of laws is a topic of ongoing controversy and research. For example, some researchers have argued that judges’ personal values can influence their judgments, which in turn can have an impact on the outcome of cases.