What is 'law'?

Contributed by StephenShaw and current to 27 July 2018

People have a fairly clear idea about what “law” is. Generally, people see law as sets of rules. Any group of people that has to live together develops rules, for without them co-existence is likely to prove difficult or impossible. One way of understanding the social rules that develop in any group situation is to think of them as norms, or as sets of behavior that the society comes to think of as normal.

Some of the norms are not considered that important, and if a person breaks one he or she will be considered rude, or ignorant, but there is no formal punishment. For instance, if someone lets their mobile phone ring in a cinema, everyone around them feels resentment because they have done something that inconveniences others. They have broken a norm, but while someone may complain, their punishment is limited to people complaining about their rudeness. Other norms are considered more important, and there are official sanctions or punishments if a person breaks them. The most obvious example is when one person kills another. The state steps in and hands out a formal punishment to the person who broke the age old norm that is expressed as “Thou shalt not kill!”

Any norm or rule where the state imposes a punishment or other sanction on the person that breaks it can be considered a law.

Laws impact on and regulate nearly every aspect of our lives. Every time someone stops at a stop sign and an accident is prevented, a law has been working as it should, by finding a balance between protecting citizens and limiting free choice. Most people obey most laws with little compulsion, often without any conscious thought that the way they are modifying their behavior is the result of a law. As long as the laws are sensible, and the benefit that flows from obedience obvious, most people act as their own internal police. To return to an example used earlier, most people stop at stop signs whether there are police present or not. They stop not because they fear punishment, but because they understand that the rule is sensible and for their own benefit. When people refuse to follow the laws, the state (through the police or other state institutions) steps in, and governs through punishments and sanctions.

The vast bulk of laws do not deal with criminal behavior, but instead regulate our relationships and set out responsibilities that arise from our conduct towards each other. Those laws do not carry punishment in the strict sense. If a person breaks those laws, for instance by failing to keep to a commercial agreement, or by being responsible for injuring someone, the state will force the party that has broken the law to pay money to the person who has suffered damage because of that person’s conduct. Payment of damages is a state-enforced sanction on the person who has been found to have broken a law.

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