The body of rules created by a society that form a framework to ensure a peaceful and ordered existence. It is enforced by mechanisms that are created and supervised by the state, and sanctions can be imposed on those who fail to obey them. Different societies develop their own laws based on the customs and traditions of their people, and the political structure they inhabit. The term law can also be used to refer to the system of legal rights, privileges and immunities guaranteed by a particular state or nation, or to the department of knowledge devoted to these principles, known as jurisprudence.
While there is no one definitive definition of law, several competing theories exist. One approach is utilitarian, and was popularized by John Austin’s dictum that “law is commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Another theory, referred to as natural law, argues that the laws governing human behavior are innate and reflect an ideal of morality. The concept of natural law first appeared in Ancient Greece, but gained wider acceptance through the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas.
Law exists to serve many purposes: it may keep the peace, maintain social order, preserve individual rights, protect minorities from majorities, and provide for a stable environment for economic growth and change. Different societies develop their laws to meet these goals in various ways, and the effectiveness of a given system can be debated. For example, an authoritarian regime that imposes peace and stability may oppress minorities, and a centralized authority can obstruct free trade and limit personal freedoms.
The concept of law is vast and complicated, covering a wide range of areas. For examples, contracts regulate agreements to exchange goods or services, property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible possessions, and tort law provides compensation when someone is harmed, such as in an automobile accident or by defamation of character. Some laws are explicitly based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, while others rely on further human elaboration, including interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and Ijma (consensus) as well as the precedent established in earlier cases.
The study of law is multi-disciplinary and involves philosophy, ethics, sociology, economics, history, politics, religion, anthropology and other social sciences. Individuals who devote themselves to the study of law are often called lawyers, and have the honorific suffix Esquire, or Doctor of Law, at their names. There are numerous law schools and programs throughout the world. Some of these offer graduate degrees in law, while others award undergraduate degrees in law or jurisprudence. A few have specialized law schools for students interested in fields such as international law or family law. Other institutions have law libraries that house a collection of books on this subject. Law is an essential topic for anyone seeking a better understanding of our complex and interconnected world.