What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and provide for the public good. It is the source of a rich and varied body of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice.

Generally, there are three categories of law:

Contract law governs agreements to exchange goods or services, from buying a bus ticket to trading on an equity derivatives market. Criminal law deals with conduct that is deemed harmful to society and provides for punishments like fines or imprisonment. Civil law deals with lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations.

A common thread running through many branches of law is the concept of property, which can be divided into two main areas: a right in rem, which covers real estate such as land and buildings; and personal property, which encompasses movable objects such as cars and computers and intangible things such as intellectual property rights or shares in a company. Other legal areas include family law, tax law and torts.

Most nations have both constitutional and common law systems. Constitutional laws are those adopted by legislative bodies such as parliaments or congresses, while common law comes from judicial decisions that are later written down as precedent. The “doctrine of stare decisis” states that decisions of higher courts will guide subsequent decisions of lower courts in similar cases.

The study of law is highly interdisciplinary and draws on a variety of academic fields including history, philosophy, economics, sociology and religion. A wide range of philosophies and disciplines can be used to illuminate the nature and purpose of law, including utilitarianism, anthropocentrism, naturalism and relativism.

In addition, law has a particular methodological complexity that distinguishes it from other scientific disciplines. Its normative statements are not empirical or causal as they are in other sciences such as gravity and physics, but rather prescribe how people ought to behave or what they should be allowed to demand from others or be required to do themselves.

The practice of law also involves a number of special terms and phrases. Examples include: