The Study of Law


Law, as a body of rules enforced by a controlling authority, serves many purposes: it can keep the peace, maintain social order, resolve disputes, uphold individual rights and liberties, and provide for ordered social change. Different legal systems serve these goals in different ways: a democratic system may promote the Rule of Law by balancing popular and judicial decisions, whereas an authoritarian state may oppress minorities or political opponents. The precise definition of Law is a subject of longstanding debate.

From a methodological viewpoint, the peculiar characteristics of Law make it distinct from other disciplines or sciences: normative statements in law (such as rules that prohibit censorship or require that people wear seatbelts) lack the kind of empirical validity of statements in natural science (like a law of gravity) or social science (such as a law of supply and demand). The specialized terminology of law also makes it challenging to translate from English into other languages.

The study of Law encompasses an enormous range of subjects and disciplines: the core topics are civil law, criminal law and family law; however, there is much overlap among these categories. Labour law, for example, examines the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union; while the field of immigration law includes a person’s right to live or work in a nation-state that is not their own. Legal history is an important discipline for studying the origins and development of law, as are jurisprudence and legal philosophy.

A recurring debate is whether laws should be objective, or whether they should reflect the preferences and prejudices of their authors or of those who enact them. For example, the legal pragmatist Steven Posner believes that a judge’s insight into a new situation is more valuable than strained analogies to ancient precedent. Conversely, traditional legal realists argue that a judge’s opinion should be based solely on facts.

The Rule of Law is a central ideal in our political tradition. Its roots extend to ancient theorists like Aristotle who compared the Rule of Law to the Rule of Man; to medieval theorists like Sir John Fortescue (1471), who distinguished lawful from despotic forms of kingship; and to the European Enlightenment in the writings of Montesquieu (1748) and James Harrington (1689). Contemporary debates about the Rule of Law are often highly emotional and polarized.