Law is a set of rules created by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect people, things, and property. It is a complex discipline from both a philosophical and practical standpoint. Its methodological complexity is attributed to the fact that it deals with normative statements, which are of a prescriptive nature and therefore lack the descriptive or causal character found in empirical sciences (such as gravity) and social sciences (such as justice or supply and demand).
Law encompasses many types of activities and areas of human life. Some of its broader categories include criminal and civil law, which deal with offenses against individuals or the state itself. Contract law, for example, regulates agreements to exchange goods and services, and property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible possessions, such as houses, cars, and money. Law also has a moral component that dictates what is right and wrong based on a variety of sources including conscience, ideas of natural justice, or the will of a deity.
Because of the complexities of this subject matter, it is not surprising that there are several competing theories regarding what exactly constitutes law and how it should be applied. In the 16th century, William Blackstone, one of the most influential English legal philosophers, distinguished between natural and positive law. The former, he believed, was the law of nature, and the latter were legal rules created by man in order to govern society and protect individuals. Blackstone believed that the rules of natural law must be consistent and universal, and that judges were “the depositories of the law; the living oracles, who must decide in all cases of doubt.” Judges, he added, should be bound by an oath to decide according to this law, and should not deviate from it except when there is clear reason to do so.
As to the positive laws created by man, he thought they “derive much of their force and dignity from the same principles of right reason, the same views of the nature and constitution of man, and the same sanction of divine revelation as those from which the science of morality is deduced.”
The principal functions of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and promote liberty and rights for all citizens. The specific ways in which these functions are accomplished vary widely from nation to nation, depending on the political power of a state. This is why law is considered to be a branch of politics; and it is also why revolutions against existing political-legal structures are so common around the world.
The most important factor in determining whether a country has a rule of law is who makes the laws and how they are enforced. This is why it is crucial to understand the underlying political system of a country in addition to its history and culture. In the majority of the world’s countries, a rule of law is established by those who have political power and can command military strength to enforce those laws. Those who do not have political or military power often resort to revolutions against established governments in the hope of creating a more democratic and less oppressive state.