The Philosophy of Law


Law is a set of rules, whether formally enacted or customary, that a State or community recognizes as governing its behavior and which it enforces by means of sanctions. Law is often defined in terms of its functions, such as establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law also governs economic activity, regulating such areas as banking, stock exchanges and competition. It also governs the provision of public services and utilities like water, gas and electricity.

One of the most visible features of the law is its coercive aspect, imposing practical demands through the threat of sanction, and this has given rise to many controversial arguments about the nature of law. Early legal positivists, such as Bentham and Austin, tended to assume that the normative character of law lies in its coercive aspect; later legal positivists have denied this, arguing that coercion is not essential to the operation of law, or indeed pivotal to its fulfillment of its various social functions.

There are a number of reasons why the study of law is of interest to philosophical inquirers. One is the sheer intellectual curiosity of attempting to understand this complicated social phenomenon, which is one of the most intricate aspects of human culture. Another is the recognition that there are fundamental differences between legal systems, despite their many similarities. The different laws and legal practices of countries around the world reflect a variety of historical, cultural, economic, and religious influences.

For example, some systems are governed by civil law, which originated in ancient Greece, whereas others are governed by common law, which was adopted by the British Empire and its successors; and still other countries are governed by religious law, which varies widely among religions and even within individual religious denominations. The laws of a nation also shape politics and economics in a host of ways, from the way in which contracts are formed to how government officials and the press are treated.

A further reason why the study of law is of interest to philosophers is that it offers a unique opportunity to examine a subject which has been subjected to an unprecedented degree of scientific scrutiny. While it is plausible that mathematicians can investigate abstract objects like numbers and sets, it seems less likely that a discipline like philosophy, which is heavily dependent on human beliefs and attitudes, could ever be understood in such a manner.