Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has many functions, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.
The precise definition of law is a matter of debate, with various schools of thought claiming to understand it better than others. In the United States, the legal system is based on the Constitution, which has been passed by Congress and is enforced at the federal level by courts. In other countries, law may be based on a local or national constitution or laws passed by the government and enforced at the state or local levels.
One major issue that has vexed legal scholars for centuries is the question of whether law is a coherent system. It is argued that law should be defined as a coherent set of norms or values rather than a series of rules and regulations.
A number of different theories have been put forward to describe law as a coherent system, including the theoretical work of John Austin and Ronald Dworkin. The most influential is the work of Hans Kelsen, who developed the theory of a norm pyramid.
In this theory, the legitimacy of an individual legal norm depends on the validity of other legal norms that are higher in rank than it. For example, the legitimacy of a legal norm that prohibits robbery is derived from the legitimacy of a higher-ranking law that protects property rights and is validated by lower-ranking laws that require criminal punishment for unauthorized use of a weapon.
Another view is based on the concept of natural law, which holds that law is a reflection of essentially moral and unchanging natural laws. This notion was popularized by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and is still dominant in many parts of Western society.
Some legal systems are founded on a combination of the two views, such as the English common law and Roman law. However, most legal systems in the world are derived from civil law traditions.
Historically, the two views were in conflict with each other. The utilitarian view of John Austin held that law is “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience”.
Natural lawyers on the other hand, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that law is based on an essentially moral and unchanging set of natural laws. They see the rule of law as a means to promote good social consequences, and have a much broader range of criteria to justify legal decisions than do those who follow the positivistic view.
The defining characteristic of law, according to both perspectives, is its authority. This is a particularly important element for a living socially effective law, which, as described above, serves to preserve the (normative) structure of expectations within a group. This is done by means of sanctions, which are imposed when norms are violated.