The rules, customs and policies set by a society and enforced by that society’s political authority. Law is a system of rules that has the force and effect of a binding contract and that, if violated, subjects a person to civil punishment or criminal prosecution. Law also refers to a branch of knowledge that studies such rules, or jurisprudence.
The major purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Examples of laws include zoning regulations that determine where one may build a house, employment discrimination legislation that protects workers, and child custody laws that determine the best interests of children.
From a philosophical viewpoint, the definition of law is complicated because it has both normative and descriptive aspects. Normative statements in law, like the statement that anything thrown up unsupported in space will come down, are consistent with empirical reality, but this consistency does not make them a fact or a part of scientific knowledge (like physics or the science of gravity).
The legal system is different around the world. In some countries, laws are determined by the legislature, while in others, decisions of courts are recognized as law. In common law systems, a court’s decision will often bind future courts on the same issue through the principle of stare decisis. The legislature may overrule a court’s decision and establish its own policy, however. This type of law is considered arbitrary. Other legal systems are more rule-based, and follow the philosophy of Max Weber in attempting to harmonize conflicting groups through the mechanism of the state.