A Theory of the Law

Law is the system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of debate and its application varies from place to place. It can be derived from religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, which form the basis of traditional legal systems in Islamic countries, or judicial decisions through the use of precedent and creative jurisprudence, as is practiced in common law countries.

Some societal functions of law include establishing standards for desirable behavior, proclaiming symbolic expressions of communal values, and resolving disputes about facts or rights. The law can also serve as a source of power, coercing citizens to act in certain ways by threatening them with sanctions.

Other important purposes of law are keeping order, preserving the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities, and enabling social change in a controlled manner. Some societies achieve some of these goals through authoritarian governments, while others are prone to rebellions against existing political-legal authority.

The nature of the law depends on its purpose, its social context and the political regime that makes it up. In a democracy, law is often defined in terms of fundamental principles, such as the equality of all people and the dignity of the individual. In a totalitarian state, laws may be defined in terms of the needs and interests of the ruling regime.

Law consists of many different fields of study, and the field of law is itself a source of debate and controversy. Legal scholars have argued that the law is an institution that has developed through historical and cultural processes, and that a theory of the law must therefore consider all the factors which have contributed to its development.

In the twentieth century, theories of the law have sought to provide a conceptual analysis of the concept of law and its cognate concepts, such as legal validity and legal obligation. Some have aimed to capture what they perceive as the “intuitive” aspect of law, in which it is understood that rules exist for a reason, and that violations of those rules provoke hostile reactions from those subject to them.

Other theorists have emphasized that the normative aspects of the law are less intuitive and more complex. John Austin’s utilitarian view of the law, for example, is that it reflects commandments from a sovereign that have been endorsed by a society with the habit of obedience. This approach was criticized by H.L.A. Hart for obscuring the fact that the rules have a normative force in the sense that they give reasons to obey them. Nevertheless, many legal theories continue to focus on the normative dimensions of the law. They have a great deal in common with utilitarian approaches, but offer different interpretations of the data on which those theories must draw. These include a range of behavioural sciences and other disciplines. In addition to sociology, history, and economics, anthropology has contributed to the study of law.