What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a society develops in order to deal with crimes, business agreements and social relationships. It also refers to the people who work in this field, such as lawyers, judges and police officers.

The word law can also refer to a specific branch of the law, such as criminal or civil law. In a narrower sense, it refers to the rules governing private life: e.g. family law governs marriage and children, property law determines ownership of assets and a person’s rights to them, inheritance law defines the power to gift or bequeath titles to property to others; contract law defines the ability to enter into contractual obligations and agency law empowers people to entrust others to take legal actions on their behalf.

Law is a product of political action, and as such the principal functions of law vary from nation to nation. An authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it might also oppress minorities or the opponents of its leaders. On the other hand, a democratic government may promote social justice and allow for the peaceful and ordered development of a society.

Some philosophers posit that the function of law is to protect people’s rights and freedoms. This view of the law is sometimes referred to as the “rights approach” or the “principal-agent theory of the law”. Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall are prominent defenders of one version of this position, often called the “claim-rights theory” of the law, which emphasizes the power of right-holders to demand that their rights be protected (Feinberg 1970: 125, 132). Other philosophers posit a more passive role for the law, where the duty of the state to protect individual rights is considered paramount and the actual exercise of these duties is secondary.

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