What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that creates a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It protects individual rights and enables people to resolve conflicts by legal means rather than fighting. It also makes it possible to hold government officials accountable and facilitates social change.

In large-scale, modern societies there is usually a formal system of laws that is enforceable by police and courts. Those rules can be divided into two domains: public law and private law. Public law concerns the relationship between the government and the community and includes criminal, civil, and administrative law. Private law involves disputes between individuals and/or organizations and includes contract, property, torts, and commercial law.

The primary functions of law are to (1) keep the peace and maintain the status quo, (2) preserve individual rights, (3) prevent oppression of minorities by majorities, (4) promote social justice, and (5) enable orderly social change. The success of any legal system in carrying out these tasks varies from nation to nation. In unstable or authoritarian regimes, these goals are frequently compromised. In stable democratic republics, the balance of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches is carefully maintained so that no one branch of government is able to gain absolute control.

An important part of the study of law is understanding how each person’s interpretation of law evolves over time. This evolution occurs through the act of observer-participancy – the process of an individual assigning true or false values to mathematically undecidable propositions – that Holmes describes as “the building block of law.” As this flow of experience continues, an observer’s probability estimates are updated and law is redefined anew.

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