The Philosophy of Law


Law is a set of norms that regulate human behavior. It can refer to any system of rules that are enforceable by the state or by other social institutions. It can also refer to specific categories of legal rights and wrongs, such as property law (including the ownership of physical goods or intangible assets such as bank accounts and shares of stock), tort law (the obligation to pay compensation for injuries caused by negligence or defamation), or criminal law (the obligation to obey a state’s orders).

There is no single definition of “law.” The term has been used to describe everything from the natural processes that govern the universe to the social arrangements that bind members of a society together. The most fundamental purpose of law, however, is to promote public order and safety, protect the individual, promote social justice, and facilitate orderly social change. Different legal systems fulfill these purposes in different ways, and some have more trouble fulfilling them than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it may also oppress minorities or thwart social reforms.

One key feature of law is its connection to authority, which distinguishes it from other social behavioral norms such as customs and morals. The mere fact that a rule is legally sanctioned establishes its authority in a way that is not true for other norms. The existence of sanctions in turn makes the rule valid and enforceable. This is why there is a difference between “law” and “dead law.” Dead law is any norm that has been promulgated without being enforced or otherwise applied, while live law is a set of norms that has been effectively implemented.

A central idea in the philosophy of law is that laws are derived from objective moral principles. This can be done in two ways: either directly, by a kind of immediate deduction from the content of moral principles, or indirectly, through legal precedent. The former approach was given a systematic treatment by the Christian philosopher St Thomas Aquinas, who developed Aristotle’s concept of natural law and of values and politics in innovative ways.

The formal principles Fuller laid out in his book on the philosophical basis of law emphasized procedural aspects of law: it should be accessible to people, epistemically, so they can study and internalize it, figure out what it requires of them, and apply it to their lives; and legal institutions should be available for ordinary citizens to uphold their rights, settle disputes, and protect themselves against abuses of public and private power.

In areas of the law that tend to have clients with more knowledge about the subject, such as intellectual property and corporate law, the language used in legal documents can become more technical. Legal publications also often take a position on controversial changes to the law and use footnotes that reflect a more academic style of writing.