What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules imposed and enforced by a sovereign authority that regulates behavior. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and its precise definition has been the subject of long debate.

One of the central questions in defining law is whether or not it incorporates morality. John Austin, the founder of the utilitarian school of thought, argued that laws are “commands backed by the threat of sanctions issued by a sovereign to which people have a natural habit of obedience.” Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, have argued that law reflects innately moral and unchanging laws of nature.

Whether or not the concept of morality is part of the law, most legal systems recognize that certain principles are universal. For example, every state prohibits murder, and the right to a fair trial is guaranteed by most legal systems. Other common legal principles include accountability, due process and accessible justice.

Law is the set of rules that govern a specific area of life, such as a country or state. It may be created and enacted by a legislature through legislation, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch through decrees and regulations, especially in countries with a federal system of government; or by courts, resulting in common law. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts, such as arbitration agreements, which provide alternative means for resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

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