Law is a social institution that governs the behavior of individuals and communities by imposing constraints on them. It has many important functions in society, including regulating commerce and providing a forum for the settlement of disputes. Law is also a tool for imposing order, ensuring fairness, and protecting human rights. The shape and content of law vary greatly across cultures. Throughout history, various attempts have been made to explain the nature of law.
The prevailing view of legal philosophy is that there is something unique about the concept of law that distinguishes it from other normative domains like morality, religion, and social conventions. It is a fundamental interest in this characteristic that attracts philosophers to study the nature of law, and it is this distinctive feature that makes it a philosophical problem.
Theories of law typically attempt to explain the normative, reason-giving aspect of the law. One approach is that laws are merely descriptive in character and their meaning is determined by the consequences that arise from deviations from them. This reductionist account of the normative role of the law was first articulated by Austin and vigorously criticized by H.L.A. Hart, among others.
Another approach to the nature of law explains it by its logical and practical structure. Unlike other normative domains, which may be understood in purely descriptive terms, law is a formally structured system of enforceable rules. The logical structure of law is what gives it its intelligibility, and this in turn makes it a distinct social phenomenon.
This approach to the nature of law has been a prominent one in the 20th century, and it is associated with the school of legal positivism. A fundamental insight of this approach is that the content of the law reflects the nature of the human community and the world in which it operates.
Other important views about the nature of law focus on its aims and values. Generally speaking, law is seen as a means for promoting certain values in society and limiting the scope of arbitrary power.
Whether these values are worth promoting or not is another matter for debate, but the central point is that the law is a legitimate social institution. It claims to be an authority and, even if it does not fulfill this claim perfectly, it is still essential for the proper functioning of society.