What is Law?

Law is a broad term and many people have different views on what it is. One common definition is that law is a set of rules created by the state which form a framework to ensure a peaceful society, and that these can be enforced and sanctions imposed if they are broken or breached. This definition is easy enough to understand but, like any generalization, it contains elements of nuance that can be confusing.

Another common definition of law is that it is a system of justice that sets out the rights and obligations of all members of a society, whether they are citizens or not. This is a much more complex view of the concept and one which has been the subject of numerous books and debates. There is also a strong link between the legal system and the societal values that underpin it, which makes this a very rich area of study.

The term law can also be used to refer to a particular document, such as an article of incorporation, or a statute. It can even refer to a particular order or regulation issued by an authority such as a municipal corporation or government agency. However, the most common use of the word ‘law’ is to refer to a body of principles that apply to all members of a society and are used to guide them in their actions.

A number of theories have been put forward to try and explain the nature of law. Roscoe Pound, for example, thought that law was essentially a means of social control and that it was used to satisfy certain social wants. The main functions of law, according to this view, are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, and facilitate social change.

Other theories of law include those of John Austin and Hans Kelsen. Austin’s theory was that laws are created when a man perceives himself as politically superior to others, and that these laws are then imposed on them as their duty. He further argued that the law is not a fixed entity but is a continuously flowing process, whereby a participant’s probability estimates are updated as experience accrues.

This approach to law is not widely accepted, and many scholars believe that the concept of law is too complicated to be understood in this way. A further criticism of this view is that it fails to take into account the existence of natural laws that are independent of human choice, and that these can be applied without any intention or knowledge on the part of the lawmaker.

The examples below have been programmatically compiled from various online sources and are intended to illustrate current usage of the word ‘law.’ They do not represent the views of Merriam-Webster or its editors.