Law is a discipline and profession concerned with the customs, practices and rules of conduct of a society that are recognized as binding by its members and enforced by its authority. It is also used to refer to a system of rules that governs the relationships between individuals, businesses and institutions. Laws cover many topics such as the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the protection of the environment, property ownership, and criminal and civil procedures. The word “law” is also used to describe the body of laws that govern a particular country or region, and it can be applied to both national and international law.
The value that people place on the Rule of Law, despite its many problems, stems in part from the fact that it reduces the asymmetry between ruler and ruled, making power less arbitrary and more impersonal. For this reason, many thinkers have sought a formal definition of law that is independent of its social purpose and that can provide a rational basis for assessing its legitimacy.
Unlike empirical or natural science, where laws are statements of the predictable consequences of certain actions or states of affairs, a law in the sense of a legal rule is normative and prescriptive. A legal rule tells people how they should act or what they may or must not require from others and it sets the limits on their freedom to pursue their own interests.
It is this normative character of the law that makes it unique amongst human activities and has made its subject matter the focus of intense and ongoing debate. This debate extends back to ancient philosophers like Aristotle, medieval theorists such as Sir John Fortescue and the works of the Enlightenment era political writers like Montesquieu; to the development of American constitutionalism in The Federalist Papers; and right up to the modern work on judicial review by Posner and other legal pragmatists.
There are also a number of specific areas of law: immigration law deals with the rights of foreigners to live in a country that is not their own; criminal law concerns behaviour that harms society or infringes upon the personal liberties of other persons; family law covers divorce and custody of children; and commercial law deals with the relationship between business and money. These areas of law are a source of scholarly inquiry in history, philosophy, political science and economic analysis.
Law is also a field of study for the professions that deal with advising about the law, representing people in court or judging cases and punishments. These include lawyers, barristers and judges. They all play a central role in the governing of societies and their institutions. They are often seen as having important societal and ethical responsibilities. They are also often the targets of criticism for their alleged insensitivity, bureaucratic nature and insularity. The concept of the law is a fascinating one and provides a valuable lens through which to view a wide range of issues and phenomena in politics, economy, history and society.