What Is Law?


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a huge variety of ways. It is the basis of all commercial activity and underpins everything from contract law to statutory regulation of the economy, from criminal laws and human rights to family law and medical jurisprudence. It reflects the way in which societies are organised, from how governments manage public services like water, gas and telecomms to how private companies control privatised services such as airlines, banks and stock exchanges.

It is difficult to give a precise definition of Law because the meaning of law changes with context and individuals. John Austin’s utilitarian answer was that law is a set of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to men as political subjects. Others such as Hans Kelsen created the ‘pure theory of law’ which said that law consists of a series of rules to be followed, and is not a social science.

It is also important to distinguish between ascertaining the content of law (e.g., legal interpretation) and deciding how to resolve disputes which are not controlled by the law. This distinction was central to 20th century movements such as logical empiricism and American legal realism, which emphasized the need to separate laws from social norms. This approach has been criticised for its focus on ascertaining the plain meaning of a text rather than considering wider issues such as how law is created and applied, and whether judges should be influenced by their own views on morality or ethics.

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