Law is a collection of rules that governs the actions and interactions of individuals, groups, or society as a whole. These rules are enforced through a controlling authority, usually by penal sanctions. The study of law is a foundational aspect of several academic fields, including history, philosophy, political science and economic analysis. It also provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry and debate.
The principal purposes of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect individual liberties and rights. Different legal systems meet these goals in diverse ways. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain social stability but at the cost of oppressing minorities or preventing democratic change. In contrast, a liberal constitutional democracy might serve its constituents well by fostering greater freedom of expression and association but may fail to ensure equal economic opportunity or provide for safe and healthy living conditions.
In philosophical terms, the study of law is part of philosophy and deals with questions of metaphysics and ethics. In particular, philosophical writers have pondered the nature of laws themselves. In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers of law argued that laws were not just immutable but had an ontological or intrinsic existence, rather like a natural process such as a mathematical constant (e.g., the law of gravity).
Legal theory concerns how a state or other authority makes and enforces its laws. It encompasses a wide range of topics, from the structure and form of legislation to the role of judicial institutions and legal reasoning in determining what is or is not lawful. It also addresses the broader issues of justice, fairness and equality.
The discipline and profession of law covers a variety of areas, such as criminal, civil, family, property and administrative law. Laws that govern the conduct of a country’s citizens are called national law or domestic law, while those that regulate business activities and the movement of money are international or commercial law.
The law may also be applied to certain specific types of cases or situations, such as the law of torts which compensates individuals for injuries and damage caused by others, or the law of terrorism which deals with offenses against the state. These are often heard in special courts that focus on those issues. In other cases, however, they are heard by judges in the same courtroom as other criminal or civil cases. Similarly, laws regulating the use of weapons or other military forces are handled by a branch of the government called military law.