Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Law has many functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberty and rights. Some legal systems are more effective at serving these purposes than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a democratic state may promote social justice and allow for peaceful social change.
The normative nature of law has been a source of controversy since at least the nineteenth century. Some scholars, like Austin, have argued that the normative character of law simply consists in the fact that deviations from it must be viewed as likely to incur punishment or evil, and thus must give rise to reasons for refraining from the prohibited action. This reductionist account was fiercely criticized by H.L.A. Hart, among others.
Other scholars have argued that the normative character of laws depends on the moral content and merits of the norms they entail. This view has been elaborated in a sophisticated manner by Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher not sympathetic to traditional natural law theory. Dworkin argues that the conditions of legal validity are much more complex than the legal positivists had assumed. Determining what is legally valid requires a careful consideration of moral-political issues about what ought to be law.