According to 20th century British philosopher John Hartland-Swann, morals are really no different than etiquette and law, except in the degree of their importance to society. He says that etiquette - proper social manners - has the lowest level of importance, followed by morals and law. Hartland-Swann’s view is faulty in only one respect: the order of his social law hierarchy is not correct. Morals are definitely more important than the law, and Hartland-Swann’s view doesn’t hold much relevance to real moral concerns.
Morals are on a higher plane than laws are. Laws are based on morals; therefore, morals can override laws. Laws cannot override morals because morals are absolute and universal. In every situation, there is always a ‘right’ thing to do. We are all convinced of this. One could argue that the ‘right’ thing to do is determined by the situation a person finds himself in; however, I do not believe this. From situation to situation, a person’s attitudes and moral decisions may change, but the true moral, based on God’s word, remains constant. There is always the one ‘right’ thing to do. Whether a person chooses to do it or not does not change the fact of its existence.
Morals are constant; laws are not. Laws change because they do not fit in with the moral ideal. For instance, the Jim Crow laws that were once used to discriminate against African-Americans were changed once we realized that it immoral to treat other human beings as inferior. Since some laws are changed because they do not fit our moral standards, it naturally follows that we put more emphasis on morals than we do on laws. It is also important to note that we have laws of necessity, such as self-defense, which guards against an act being called illegal in a life or death situation. Generally, we consider murder illegal, but when you are killing someone who is trying to put your life in danger, it is perfectly all right in the eyes of the law. From a moral standpoint, killing for any reason is not the ‘right’ thing to do. It may be what is necessary at the time, but that does not make it right. Because our laws rely so heavily on what is moral, it is ridiculous to say that laws are more important than morals.
Above, I mentioned that laws are based on morals. This statement can also be used as support for the counter-argument, Hartland-Swann’s social law hierarchy. Morals were created because the laws of etiquette existed; thus, morals are more important and are one step further than etiquette. Laws were formed from morals and are higher in importance because of that fact. It is not only bad manners to kill your brother, it is morally wrong; furthermore, it is illegal. Laws hold more importance than morals because you can get arrested for breaking the law, but nothing happens to you if you do not stick to morals, except you possibly feel a twinge of guilt; thus, legal violations are worse than moral violations by the way they are punished.
All these arguments are concerned with society and the way society reacts to certain issues. The different levels are categorized by the degree to which they are punishable by society. This really has nothing to do with the real ethical concern. It does not matter how much a person gets punished for a social violation, or even how serious the violation is. The fact remains that there is still a true moral and no law is more important than that true moral. Sometimes laws must be broken in order to do the right thing. Martin Luther King was arrested because he broke the law trying to establish Civil Rights. No one can argue that what he did was not completely morally justifiable, yet it was considered to be illegal. When looking at that example, it is easy to see how morals do hold more weight than laws do. Hartland-Swann was very much mistaken when he said laws were more important.