The idea of law is closely connected with other basic notions, with those of justice and liberty and government and peace. The three great functions of government are connected with law: the making of laws, the application of laws to particular cases, and the enforcement of laws. Perhaps the one connection that may not be immediately clear is the connection between law and peace. Niccolo Machiavelli said, “There are two ways of contesting: the one by law, the other by force. The first method is proper to men, the second to beasts.” John Locke said, “There are two sorts of contesting among men: the one managed by law, the other by force.” The reign of law is the reign of peace; the absence of law is war.

The opposition in our minds between the lawful and the lawless is an opposition between order on the one hand and chaos on the other. The lawful is the right, the lawless is the wrong. We have the deep sense that the lawful represents reason in our lives, the rule of reason, whereas the lawless represents the uncontrolled reign of the rule of force.

We ought not to identify law with the criminal law and with the apprehension, trial, and conviction, and punishment of criminals. However important that criminal law is, it is actually only a small part of the law’s contribution to our daily lives, the conduct of our businesses, the regulation of our domestic and corporate affairs, the protection of our property, our rights, and our liberties. Alongside the criminal law there is the civil law.

There are three things in our basic understanding of the law. The three things are that the law is always a general statement, that it is a rule, and that it’s the sort of rule which is an instrument for the government of a community. The laws in law books are all rules of conduct. They state not how things do behave but how men should behave.

Law is the principle of order in a society. It brings a one, a community, a single unit out of the many. Law is what regulates the conduct of individuals in such a way that they can live together and act together. Law can produce the concerted action of a community for the common good rather than for their individual interests.

Law is a rule made for the common good of a community, grounded in reason, instituted by the will of a duly constituted authority, either by the whole people or by their representatives and with their consent, and having coercive force.

How to think about law
Mortimer Adler

Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice