What Is Law?


Law is an important part of human society that shapes politics, economics, history and social science. Its complex nature has made it a focus of scholarly inquiry, such as legal theory, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law is used in practice to resolve disputes, settle conflicts and determine rights and obligations between individuals and governments.

Law has a normative and prescriptive nature that distinguishes it from other forms of human order. It sets standards for how people ought to behave, imposes prohibitions and mandates what they must do or not do. Law is unique among human activities in that it has both a descriptive and causal nature, but is not subject to rigorous scientific methods of verification like other disciplines.

Different legal systems have various purposes for law, including maintaining peace, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities and enabling ordered social change. Some have extensive written codes of laws enacted by legislatures, while others rely more on judge-made law through case precedent and a doctrine known as stare decisis. Religious law can also be a source of law, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia.

Other examples of law include the right to free speech, the prohibition against torture and the right to a fair trial. Law also has an international dimension, with treaties and agreements between nations that may trump domestic law. Law includes such specialized fields as space law (international relations in outer space) and tax law (regulations that establish the amount of income and capital taxes). An important branch of law is family law, a field that combines concepts of domestic and international law to protect the rights of children and spouses.

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