What is Law?

Law is the set of norms that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. It has been variously described as a science and as an art of justice.

It is a very complex area of study and there are many layers to it. For example, there are deep debates about how much our judges should be allowed to be guided by their own sense of right and wrong and how much they should be influenced by the views of their fellow judges and by their colleagues in other jurisdictions. There is also a lot of discussion about how much our legal system should be based on human rights and other ideas drawn from religion and philosophy.

In addition to these philosophical debates, there are also practical issues that have to be resolved. This includes debates about how to make laws and about the ways in which they are implemented.

The precise definition of law is a matter of dispute, but it normally involves a rule or set of rules that are created and enforced by social or government institutions to regulate behaviour. It has been variously defined as a science and as an art of Justice (the proper distribution of goods/privileges and burdens in a society).

A basic problem with law is how to distinguish between good and evil. This is a difficult question and one that has been debated from the time of Aristotle. It was debated again during the Enlightenment in the work of philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1782: ch. 3). The modern concept of the Rule of Law has been influenced by ideas from philosophy (such as Fuller’s ‘rules of reason’) and political theory, in particular that of the American Federalists (Federalist Papers – 1787).

In general, it is thought that laws should be epistemically accessible, that is that they should be promulgated so that people can study them, internalize them, figure out what they require of them and use them to frame their plans and expectations, and settle disputes with others. This requires the independence of judges, transparency of public business and integrity of procedures.

Laws also need to be stable, publicly available and clear. The latter requirement implies that there is a need for a profession that can offer advice to lay-people about what the law at any given moment actually requires of them. This is a necessary condition for the prospect of the Rule of Law but it is not a sufficient condition, as Raz 1977 argues. For law to be a true alternative to despotic forms of rule it needs a more substantive dimension than formal/procedural clarity. This has been argued by theorists such as A V Dicey (1885: ch. 8). See also: