Law is the collection of rules and principles set down in a society by government or other authoritative institution to control behavior and enforce rights. It covers a vast range of topics, including contract, criminal and civil law. It is a distinct discipline from natural science, which includes empirical studies such as the law of gravity, and social sciences such as the law of equality or economics. Law is unique from these disciplines in that it has normative, rather than descriptive or causal, character; it prescribes how people ought to behave or what they should or shouldn’t ask of others.
Law has many purposes, but the four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. These objectives are achieved through a complex mix of constitutional, legislative and executive powers. They are not always easy to meet; revolutions in favour of different political-legal arrangements occur periodically.
The definition of the law varies widely across societies, reflecting the cultural and historical background of each country. In common law systems, decisions by courts are explicitly acknowledged as law on equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and regulations issued by the executive branch. In contrast, in some civil law systems, the judiciary’s authority is restricted or even denied the status of law.
From an ontological perspective, the law is an emergent property of the observer-participant relationship to reality: the act of assigning true or false values to mathematically undecidable propositions constitutes experience; as this experience flows, probability estimates are updated, and the outcome of events becomes apparent, which is the essence of law. This explains why Holmes defined law as a “bettabilitarian” approach: “law is an emanation of the human will to make bets on expected outcomes” (Holmes, 1905).
It is important to understand the context in which the laws are created and applied. For example, the quality of a country’s law depends on its stability and the balance of power among competing interest groups. It also depends on the degree to which fundamental legal rights and core democratic institutions are enshrined in the constitution and enforceable by the courts. It also depends on whether or not the country’s citizens are able to access laws and participate in decision-making and legal proceedings. Finally, it depends on whether or not core legal principles are adhered to: supremacy of the law, equality before the law, transparency in the law and the judicial system, separation of power, participation by citizens, avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and substantive justice. This is the topic of the articles on democracy and rule of law; the articles on the legal profession, legal education and training, and legal ethics provide additional background. The articles on jurisprudence, legal history and law in practice offer further insight into the complexities of law. The articles on law and society and on the role of law in globalization provide a more holistic view of the interplay between law, culture and international affairs.