Philosophy of Law


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. The term also refers to the legal profession, which includes lawyers and judges. Articles on the topic of law can address a wide variety of issues, including how different nations’ systems of laws vary, and how law changes over time.

One of the main purposes of law is to establish standards that are considered acceptable for most people, to govern conflicts and disputes, and to protect individuals against injustice. Some of these functions may be achieved more effectively by some systems than others. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and other political opponents. In contrast, a democracy can promote equality for all its citizens.

Other functions of law are to provide incentives, to help solve recurrent and complex coordination problems, to proclaim symbols of communal values, to resolve disputes about facts, and so on. These functions tend to have little to do with the coercive aspect of law, which involves the imposition of sanctions on recalcitrant people. For this reason, twentieth century legal positivists like H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz argued that law’s coercive aspect is not necessary for its ability to fulfill its social functions.

Some authors, however, argue that law’s coercive aspect plays a very important role in its ability to perform its social functions, and they reject the arguments of twenty-first century legal positivists. This view of law is often based on the assumption that all legal practitioners possess a thin concept of what “law” means, and that disagreements about the grounds of law are thus basically semantic. However, even if there is such a thin concept of law, it is unclear whether agreeing on its grounds commits you to thinking that laws are morally good or desirable.

In addition to the traditional Hart-Dworkin debates, there are a number of other topics in the philosophy of law that are of interest. These include:

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