Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.
The nature of law is an area of intense controversy, and there are many theories about it. Some approaches focus on its relationship to other normative domains, like morality, religion, and social conventions; others address whether law is intelligible independently of such other factors. In either case, an understanding of the nature of law involves a systematic attempt to capture and systematize the relevant data about it.
One source of controversy is the question about whether or not there is a shared concept of law amongst all legal practitioners. A common view is that there is, but that the definition of this concept is a matter of interpretation and a result of cultural differences.
Another source of controversy is the question about the extent to which different conceptions of the law are compatible. A key factor in this is the distinction between a descriptive or causal theory of law and a normative one. A descriptive theory of law would simply explain why and how laws exist; a normative theory would tell us what sorts of precepts are desirable or acceptable in a society, and what sort of sanctions can be employed to ensure their compliance.
From a methodological viewpoint, law is unique among the sciences and disciplines. There is no way to empirically verify whether or not a given set of laws actually comprises precepts of such and such import; whereas normative statements in other fields, like the law of gravity or the law of supply and demand, can be verified through experimentation.
Furthermore, the nature of the law is largely contingent on the shape and limitations of the physical world. It is impossible to mandate behaviours that are beyond the capacity of human beings; nor can it impose sanctions on individuals without violating their right to free will and self-determination.
Lastly, the controversies about the nature of law also involve questions about the extent to which it relies on coercion to perform its important social functions. One of the founders of modern legal positivism, Hans Kelsen, held that the law’s monopoly on violence and its ability to impose sanctions are the most important of its social functions; this was controversially challenged by twentieth century legal scholars, like H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz. This debate was refocused in the wake of the global financial crisis and the growing concern over the role of the state in the regulation of economic activity. It is still ongoing today, as governments across the world are grappling with how to best balance these competing concerns. The resulting discussions will have a major impact on the future of our societies. It is a debate that we should all pay close attention to. The future of humanity depends on it.