Law is the set of rules that govern a society. It includes rules that regulate people’s interactions with one another in a variety of ways, such as contract laws that govern agreements to exchange goods and services, property laws that define people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, estate laws that allow them to gift or bequeath property to others, and agency law which allows them to entrust legal actions to others to take on their behalf.
Law has many important purposes: it can keep the peace, maintain social status quos, preserve individuals’ liberties, protect minorities against majorities, promote justice, and provide for orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these goals more effectively than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain social stability, but it can also oppress its citizens and persecute minorities. The same is true for democratic governments, which can promote social justice and provide for orderly social change but are at risk of reverting to autocracy.
The most common legal system is the rule of law, which is a legal order that seeks to balance the competing interests of individual liberty and public interest. It is based on the principles of natural law, natural reason, and scripture, and is founded on the principle that no person has any right to violate the rights of others.
While the Rule of Law is a good starting point for understanding law, there are numerous other legal systems that exist. One notable example is the law of nations, which is a legal system that derives from the law of nature and scripture, but also takes into account the customs and practices of various societies in its application.
In addition to defining legal positions, relationships, and norms, law also defines the legal power that enables people to alter these. Generally, the more powerful a legal position is, the more power it has to impose its dictates on other legal positions, relations, and norms (Hohfeld 1919: 50-57).
One prominent theory of the function of rights, which Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall have called the “demand theory of rights,” focuses on the ability or capacity of right-holders to claim their rights. This is the theory that most people think of when they hear the word “right.” It explains why rights are considered to be valuable and what purpose they serve. This theory is also consistent with Hohfeld’s distinction between privilege-rights, power-rights, and immunity-rights. Privilege-rights and power-rights determine what right-holders may do or can do, while immunity-rights determine what they cannot do.