The Nature of Law

Law, also jurisprudence, is the study of a system of rules and principles, usually arranged in codes, that govern a particular jurisdiction or area of life. It serves many purposes, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. These are the broadest aims of any legal system.

In addition to these overarching objectives, law is a social phenomenon with normative dimensions. It guides human conduct in ways that are similar to other normative domains, such as morality, religion, or social conventions like etiquette. This raises issues about the nature of law and the extent to which it is intelligible without some other framework of guidance.

Theories of the nature of law have varied. Some, such as utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, argued that the most efficient way to govern is with a hierarchy of commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. Others, such as natural lawyers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argued that law reflects essentially moral and unchanging laws of nature. This notion of the nature of law was reshaped in modern times by a variety of issues, including criticism of its coercive aspect and the fact that there are other, non-coercive ways to guide human behaviour. It is a key area of dispute in the philosophy of law and is treated in a number of articles, such as natural law; legal ethics; and the controversies surrounding the meaning of the word ‘law’.

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