The Purpose of Law


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a myriad of ways, and it serves as the mediator of relationships between people. Its many branches are as diverse as the activities of the human race, and range from contracts to criminal prosecution. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (real estate, buildings and so forth) and intangible property (money, bank accounts, and shares of stock). Tort law covers harm caused by negligence or wrongful conduct, from automobile accidents to libel. Criminal law deals with offenses against a community’s political or social order, from vandalism to murder.

There is a huge difference between a nation’s laws and their application to different situations. This variation is a function of how the political system establishes its authority and enforces law, which in turn depends on how a society conceives of law’s purpose. In the West, for instance, law reflects a complex blend of secular and religious ideas.

The most basic function of law is to make and enforce rules to govern the affairs of a community, a country or an entire world. Most legal systems consist of a set of rules that is derived from statute, case law and conventions. Some, like the United States and France, have a codified constitution that sets out the limits of government power, with the rights of individuals encoded in it. Others, such as India and Japan, have a common law tradition based on both Hindu and Islamic sources.

A nation’s law may also reflect an aspiration to democratic rule and greater rights for its citizens, a theme that recurs in revolts around the globe every year. The ability to establish and maintain stable and functional laws varies from nation to nation, depending on the balance of political and military power, and on a population’s tolerance for authoritarian rule.

In some countries, it takes a great deal of work to determine “what the law is” in any particular situation. Lawyers must first ascertain the facts of the case and locate a statute or court decision that addresses similar circumstances. Then they must compare the facts of the case to the principles, analogies and statements in those decisions, interpreting them in light of the factual circumstances at hand. In addition, more recent decisions and those by higher courts or legislatures carry greater weight than earlier ones.

Philosophers and philosophers have also contributed to the development of law, and their views on what law is or should be are reflected in different schools of legal thought. Utilitarian thinkers like Jeremy Bentham have argued that law is simply commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign authority that people have a natural tendency to obey. Other schools, including the natural-law school influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that people have God-given or “natural” rights that can’t be taken away by the state, and that the law should be based on those rights.