Law is a set of rules made by a government that citizens must follow, or else face punishment. For example, in most countries, it is against the law to steal, and if you get caught doing so, you could be put in jail. But law is much more than just a list of rules that must be obeyed. It is also about the way that people and societies organize themselves to function as well as possible. It is about securing justice and protecting the interests of individuals, families, communities, and nations. It is about the nature of power and how people exercise it to achieve their goals.
There are a number of theories of law that describe the role and significance of law in different societies. These theories are:
One common view is that law exists to protect the interests of individuals, and that it should be based on human rights principles. The goal of a system that is committed to this view is to provide equal protection under the law for all individuals, regardless of their social status or wealth.
Another view is that the law serves as a mechanism to prevent individuals from harming themselves or others, and that this is the only practical way to secure individual freedom. This view is sometimes called utilitarian or functionalist.
The third common view of law is that it serves a social purpose, such as maintaining order, providing security, or preserving public health and safety. This view of law is often compared with the functionalism and utilitarianism of economics.
Some philosophers have argued that the legal concept of rights is a fundamentally moral idea, and that a system of laws that is committed to this idea should be ethically superior to a system that is not. This view of rights is sometimes referred to as the “claim-rights theory” (Feinberg 1970; 1980: 157-164; 1992: 155-162).
The law is important for many aspects of our lives, and the study of it is often very interesting. Law is a wide field, and its topics include contract law (which regulates agreements to exchange goods or services); criminal law (which relates to crimes like murder and robbery); tort law (which deals with compensation for damage caused by negligent acts), and property law (which defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects such as houses, cars, and books). A career in the law can be very rewarding, and many young people dream of becoming lawyers. See Legal profession, Legal education, and Legal ethics for more information about these subjects.