Law, body of official rules and regulations, generally found in constitutions, legislation, judicial opinions, and the like, that is used to govern a society and to control the behaviour of its members. The nature and functions of law have varied throughout history. In modern societies, some authorized body such as a legislature or a court makes the law. It is backed by the coercive power of the state, which enforces the law by means of appropriate penalties or remedies.
Formal legal rules and actions are usually distinguished from other means of social control and guides for behaviour such as mores, morality, public opinion, and custom or tradition. Of course, a lawmaker may respond to public opinion or other pressures, and a formal law may prohibit what is morally unacceptable.
Law serves a variety of functions. Laws against crimes, for example, help to maintain a peaceful, orderly, relatively stable society. Courts contribute to social stability by resolving disputes in a civilized fashion. Property and contract laws facilitate business activities and private planning. Laws limiting the powers of government help to provide some degree of freedom that would not otherwise be possible. Law has also been used as a mechanism for social change; for instance, at various times laws have been passed to inhibit social discrimination and to improve the quality of individual life in matters of health, education, and welfare.
Some experts believe that the popular view of law overemphasizes its formal, coercive aspects. They point out that if a custom or norm is assured of judicial backing, it is, for practical purposes, law. On the other hand, a statute that is neither obeyed nor enforced is an empty law. Social attitudes towards the formal law are a significant part of the law in process. The role of law in China and Japan, for example, is somewhat different from its role in Western nations. Respect for the processes of law is low, at least outside matters of business and industry, and tradition looms much larger in everyday life. Resort to legal resolution of a dispute is truly a last resort, with conciliation being the mechanism that is preferred for social control.
Law is not completely a matter of human enactment; it also includes natural law. The best-known version of this view, that God’s law is supreme, has had considerable influence in many Western societies. The civil rights movement, for example, was at least partially inspired by the belief in natural law. Such a belief seems implicit in the view that law should serve to promote human dignity, as for instance by the enforcement of equal rights for all. Muslim societies also embrace a version of natural law, which is closely linked to the religion of Islam