Law is the system of rules that governs human conduct in a society. It consists of a set of practical demands that can be enforced by mechanisms (and, in the extreme, sanctioned by threats and violence) – a characteristic that has given rise to fierce debates throughout history. Many philosophers, including some prominent members of the legal positivist tradition, have maintained that coercion is an essential feature of law and that it distinguishes law from other normative domains.
In contrast, others have argued that law should be defined in terms of the purposes it serves and that its proper role is to serve social wants. This approach to the law has been advocated by Roscoe Pound, amongst others.
More recently, legal philosophy has sought to move beyond these traditional debates about the nature of law. One avenue of research is to study the phenomenon of law as an artifact – something that humans create and sustain for particular reasons. Another is to study the way in which law actually functions in a variety of cases and how these observations can be used to refine our understanding of law. This latter approach, which is more descriptive than normative, allows us to adopt accounts of law that do a good job of capturing a widely shared concept of what it is without committing us to think that laws are necessarily valuable or morally justified. This is the approach taken by the American legal realists.