In science, a law is a statement that describes regular or patterned relationships among observable phenomena (see physical law). Laws of logic and mathematics describe the nature of rational thought. Laws of economics and psychology describe the nature of human behavior and interaction. Many adages are popularly known as "laws"; such as Murphy's law.
This article is concerned with laws of politics and jurisprudence: rules of conduct which mandate and/or proscribe specified relationships among people and organizations; as well as punishments for those who do not follow the established rules of conduct.
In ethics and moral philosophy this type of law is often called a "human legal code" to distinguish it from more fundamental laws applicable to all beings (metaphysics, ontology). Such a body of laws can be seen as a legally-enforced ethical code or as a "secular moral code" (to the degree that political leaders replace religious leaders as moral examples). Because lawyers and jurists more than other professions are self-regulating, almost by definition, they are often held to higher standards of behaviour or at least a stricter etiquette. These concerns are not part of this article, because those expectations and disciplines are specific to each legal code. This article takes an English-speaking point of view and deals with other legal traditions and codes by way of comparison only.
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Jurisprudence in the second sense is conventionally divided into two parts: descriptive, or analytic, jurisprudence, and normative jurisprudence. Analytic jurisprudence studies what law 'is', normative jurisprudence studies what law 'ought to be'.
Among the most important questions of analytic jurisprudence are these: What is a law? What is a legal system? What is the relationship between law and power? What is the relationship between law and justice or morality? Does every society have a legal system? How should we understand concepts like legal rights and legal obligations or duties? The most influential works of analytic jurisprudence include: Jeremy Bentham, Of Laws in General; Hans Kelsen, The Pure Theory of Law, H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law, and Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire.
Among the most important questions of normative jurisprudence are these: What is is the proper function of law? What sorts of acts should be subject to punishment, and what sorts of punishment should be permitted? What is justice? What rights do we have? Is there a duty to obey the law? What value has the rule of law? The most influential works of normative jurisprudence include all the classics of political philosophy. Among contemporary writers, the following have been particularly influential: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice H.L.A. Hart, Punishment and Responsibility; Joel Feinberg, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law; Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom; Ronald Dworkin, A Matter of Principle
Law codification involves the legislation and regulation of statutes; as well as the resolution of disputes. In the civil law system codification is also an attempt to structure the law according to fundamental ethical principles to create a sense of order and simplicity that all members of society can comprehend, not merely university trained jurists. Stating the law in simple, precise terms, understandable to the lay person without a specialized legal education, is the only way they can reasonably obey it or be fairly sanctioned for not obeying it.
This overlaps with the idea of a formal social legal code as understood in ethics. This may be understandable to the educated lay person but perhaps not to the ordinary lay person. For example, one can explain the idea of precedent more easily than that of the reasonable man, but it may be much harder to explain why precedent is "fair" to one without "higher education". The following are examples of such lay explanations of different branches of law, and theories of law.
They are not comprehensive.
In addition to being part of the societal framework law is also an academic discipline and a profession. Lawyers are sometimes called by other names, as in England where the profession is divided between solicitors and barristers. Sometimes they are also called notaries. They are professionally trained in the United States at graduate schools of law leading to the J.D. degree (Juris Doctor). In other countries legal education is considered to start at the undergraduate stage taught in faculty of law leading to the L.L.B. or B.C.L. degrees. Most of these schools also have advanced legal degrees such as the LL.M. and the J.S.D. degrees. Many persons who attend law school never practice law but use their knowledge of law in another profession. See Law (academic) and jurisprudence For law as a profession, see lawyer, jurist and practice of law.
Most laws and legal systems --at least in the Western world-- are quite similar in their essential themes, arising from similar values and similar social, economic, and political conditions, and they typically differ less in their substantive content than in their jargon and procedures.
One of the fundamental similarities across different legal systems is that, to be of general approval and observation, a law has to appear to be public, effective, and legitimate, in the sense that it has to be available to the knowledge of the citizen in common places or means, it needs to contain instruments to grant its application, and it has to be issued under given formal procedures from a recognized authority.
In the context of most legal systems, laws are enacted through the processes of constitutional charter, constitutional amendment, legislation, executive order, rulemaking, and adjudication; within Common law jurisdictions, rulings by judges are an important additional source of legal rules.
However, de facto laws also come into existence through custom and tradition. (See generally Consuetudinary law; Anarchist law.)
Law has an anthropological dimension. In order to have a culture of law, people must dwell in a society where a government exists whose authority is hard to evade and generally recognised as legitimate. People forego personal revenge or self-help and choose instead to take their grievances before the government and its agents, who arbitrate disputes and enforce penalties.
This behaviour is contrasted with the culture of honor, where respect for persons and groups stems from fear of the disproportionate revenge they may exact if their person, property, or prerogatives are not respected. Cultures of law must be maintained. They can be eroded by declining respect for the law, achieved either by weak government unable to wield its authority, or by burdensome restrictions that attempt to forbid behaviour prevalent in the culture or in some subculture of the society. When a culture of law declines, there is a possibility that an undesirable culture of honor will arise in its place.
A particular society or community adopts a specific set of laws to regulate the behavior of its own members, to order life in its political territory, to grant or acknowledge the rights and privileges of its citizens and other people who may come under the jurisdiction of its courts, and to resolve disputes.
There are several distinct laws and legal traditions, and each jurisdiction has its own set of laws and its own legal system. Individually codified laws are known as statutes, and the collective body of laws relating to one subject or emanating from one source are usually identified by specific reference. (E.g., Roman law, Common law, and Criminal law.)
Moreover, the several different levels of government each produce their own laws, though the extent to which law is centralized varies. Thus, at any one place there can be conflicting laws in force at the local, regional, state, national, or international levels.
(See conflict of laws, Preemption of State and Local Laws.)