Law is a system of rules and regulations that a society or government develops to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The term can also be used to describe the people who work in this system.
Legal systems vary widely from country to country. In most nations-states (as they are called in international law) the authority to make and enforce laws rests with a central government or its agencies. But some countries have more decentralized governments that allow citizens to participate in governing themselves through the use of citizen assemblies, referendums, and other forms of direct democracy. In all of these cases, it is important for citizens to know how their government operates and to have confidence that the laws are fair and reasonable.
Even in well-ordered societies, conflicts are inevitable. The law aims to resolve these conflicts peacefully. For example, if two people have a dispute over the ownership of property, rather than fighting each other, they turn to the courts. The courts will decide who owns the property and how to protect it. The law also ensures that everyone receives the same treatment under the same rules. This is done through a system of justice that may include police, courts, and public officials.
The laws of a community may be a collection of custom and policy that is explicitly recognized as law or a system of statutes and rules developed through a process of legislative debate and enactment. In some societies, judges’ decisions are binding on subsequent cases under a principle known as stare decisis. This makes the law more consistent than it would be if each case were decided on its own merits.
Several centuries ago, Aristotle and other philosophers began to advance philosophical claims about the nature of law. They saw the law as a universal standard that sets out standards for human conduct, but which can fail to apply or apply indeterminately in novel situations unforeseen by the lawmaker. The solution to this problem was a corrective exercise that Aristotle called “equity.”
In modern times, developments in philosophy and in the sciences have challenged many earlier views about the nature of law. For example, Max Weber reshaped thinking about the extension of state power that had been influenced by writers such as Locke and Montesquieu. And more recently, scholars have examined the role of a society’s culture and legal institutions in shaping its laws. Nevertheless, a general consensus continues to exist about the importance of core principles such as legal certainty, impartiality, and accountability in law. The scholarly study of law is therefore a vitally important part of the social sciences and the humanities. It is also a subject that is closely connected to political science, where it is often studied in conjunction with other disciplines such as history, economics, and sociology.