Philosophy of Law Spring 2018

What is Law?


Our first topic is the question “what is law?” Who cares? Everyone does, they just don’t know it.

Suppose you are a judge. Two sides come to you with different understandings of what the law says about their case. You have to decide which one is correct. Where do you look? One place you might go is statutes: the things passed by legislatures and called “laws.” That is pretty obvious.

But why do statutes count as laws? That sounds daft, I know; they just do! However it’s not that simple. Not just anyone can be a legislator; there are rules governing that too. And legislators need to follow certain procedures in order for their laws to be valid. That’s why tweets don’t have the force of law. How does this all work?

Furthermore, the written statutes don’t always settle the cases before a court. Often, courts will refer to past legal rulings called precedents. Does that make the past courts sources of law?

This is an important political question that, to some extent, pits the elected branches of government against judges and other members of the legal profession. This is most obvious in disputes over how the Constitution should be interpreted.

One of the tasks of philosophy is to expose things that we take for granted. That’s what the “what is law?” question does for the law.