The Meaning of Law


Law is a broad term for the body of rules that govern a society. They can be imposed by a central authority, such as a sovereign or a government, or they may be created and enforced by the actions of individual citizens or groups, such as a local community or a trade union. In some cases, the laws of a region or a country can be governed by a constitution that enshrines certain rights and privileges for citizens.

The precise meaning of law has long been a subject of debate, but a general understanding is that it is a set of standards that people must follow in order to live together in peace and harmony. It encompasses a variety of issues, including the right to life, freedom and privacy, as well as concepts like equality, justice and fairness. The study of law involves the analysis of how these values are interpreted and applied in particular situations, and the development and changing of laws over time.

A central issue in this context is the nature of state power and its limits, which are the source of many arguments about the legitimacy of law. Max Weber reshaped thinking on this, emphasizing the ways in which modern military, policing and bureaucratic power extends far beyond the borders of any one country, and poses special problems for accountability that writers like Locke or Montesquieu could not have imagined.

Another major question concerns the extent to which a theory of law must incorporate morality. John Austin’s utilitarian theory of law, for example, defines it as a system of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to subjects who obey because they are obliged by their own conscience and concept of natural justice. Jacques Rousseau’s natural law school, by contrast, argues that laws should reflect innate principles of right and wrong that are essentially unchanging.

Other definitions of law focus on the role that lawyers or jurists play in the process of making and interpreting laws. Roscoe Pound, for instance, argued that law is a tool for social control in which conflicting pulls of economic interests and ethical values constantly struggle to gain recognition. This view is echoed by modern legal pragmatists who put more faith in judges’ insight into new situations than they do in strained analogies with ancient precedents.

Regardless of the precise definition of law, scholars agree that it is necessary to examine how law is created and applied in a range of different situations. This might involve analyzing an individual court case, exploring a new or emerging area of the law or examining the consequences of legislative changes. Whatever the specific subject, it is important to make the writing accessible to a non-specialist readership. This requires clear explanations of technical terms, short paragraphs and the use of headings. The legal field is often characterized by technical jargon, so it is especially vital to simplify this for readers without a legal background.