What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a society or nation recognizes as regulating its members’ behavior. A nation’s legal system can serve several purposes, such as keeping the peace and maintaining social stability or preserving individual rights and promoting justice. But, because laws often contain ethical and philosophical questions, they can also serve as a source of scholarly inquiry in fields like legal history, philosophy and sociology.

Law subjects include criminal law and civil law. The former deals with conduct that is judged to be harmful to the community and which can result in punishment, such as imprisonment or fines. The latter involves the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. Other important areas of law include space law (concerning human activities in Earth orbit and outer space) and tax and banking law.

The legal systems that nations use differ widely. In the United States, for example, we have a system called “common law” that relies on a historical succession of court decisions rather than statutes passed through the legislative process. The principle of “stare decisis” states that decisions made in earlier cases are binding on later courts.

The law covers every aspect of human life. Disputes can involve the family, the workplace and the environment as well as issues of crime and nationality. The law also provides a basis for many complex debates in philosophical questions of social equality, fairness and justice. The law requires that government and private actors are held accountable, are transparent, and respect the rights of citizens.

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