The Nature of Law


Law is the system of rules that control human behavior in a society. It serves a variety of purposes, including setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

Laws may be made by legislatures, parliaments or councils, by courts or tribunals, or by private individuals. Often, laws are amended or updated by subsequent legislation or case law. Law is often a highly specialized subject area and the field of legal studies includes the study of law and society, public and private international law, constitutional law, administrative law, corporate law, criminal law, property law and civil procedure.

One approach to the nature of law focuses on its defining features. Hans Kelsen proposed a ‘pure theory of law’, which defines law as a normative science: that is, it prescribes how people ought to behave. This contrasts with descriptive or causal statements in empirical sciences, such as the law of gravity (describing what must happen between two objects), and social science, such as the law of supply and demand (again describing what happens).

In other approaches to the nature of law, the question of whether law incorporates morality is raised. John Austin’s utilitarian definition of law reflects this, as does Bentham’s idea that “law is the aggregate of commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom men have a habit of obedience.” Laws that are explicitly based on religious precepts include Jewish Halakha, Islamic Shari’a and Christian canon law.