Loyalty is not a virtue

| July 26, 2006 | 6 Replies

What is it to be loyal?

According to Merriam Webster, to be “loyal” is to be

1 : unswerving in allegiance: as  a: faithful in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign or government   b: faithful to a private person to whom fidelity is due   c: faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.

I don’t have a problem with this definition.  I do object, however, that “loyalty” has been given a free pass in modern American culture, as though loyalty is always a good thing.  In particular, the mass media has bought into this linguistic sleight-of-hand: according to the mainstream media, it is always a good thing to be “loyal.”

Loyalty is undoubtedly a virtue when we are dealing with pet dogs.  We like our dogs to be loyal. We like our dogs to do what we tell them to do.  The loyalty of a human being is not necessarily a good thing, however.

Loyalty is a matter of committing oneself to a person, to a group of people or to a cause.  But people and causes can be either praiseworthy or despicable (or something in between).  If a social cause to which I am loyal is that all babies should have basic medical care, loyalty to such a cause would be a good thing.  If my idea is that we should all give homage to Hitler, loyalty to this cause would be a horrible idea. Therefore, how can it be said that loyalty is per se a good thing unless one first examines the merit of the person(s) or clause(s) to which a person is being loyal?

For these reasons, loyalty is not necessarily a virtue.  Thus, it shouldn’t any longer be spoken of as though it is always a good thing.  In actuality, loyalty is an amoral commitment to people or causes.  In and of itself, loyalty cannot and should not be praised.  Why should we honor loyalty any more than we honor talking or putting things in our pockets, for example?  Whether talking or putting things in our pocket are “virtuous” depends upon what we’re saying or what we are putting in our pocket, right?  What if our act of talking is spreading harmful lies?  What if we’re putting poison in our pocket in order to carry out a plan to kill an innocent person?

Sometimes, it is a terrible idea to be loyal.  Consider a wife’s loyalty to a husband who beats her.  I know that there are some warped minds out there who think the wife should stick it out, patiently reading the Bible for inspiration when he’s not actually in the act of smacking her, but I consider it sick to be “loyal” to a person who causes one physical harms.  This brings to mind another aspect of being “loyal.”  We don’t usually talk about “loyal” husbands, “loyal” employers or “loyal” governments.  It seems that loyalty is often a duty that usually falls upon those who are relatively powerless. That’s why the word fits so well with dogs–and common citizens.

Patriotism is a subclass of loyalty. Can it really be said that it is a good thing to always be patriotic, to always show allegiance to one’s country even when one’s country is doing dreadful things?  If there is any doubt, a rereading of our founding documents is in order. The Declaration of Independence is proof that patriotism is not per se a good thing.  Some forms of government are worthy of loyalty and some are not. The declaration indicates that it is the right and duty of the governed to overthrow governments that do not serve them well.

Yet somehow, loyalty (and patriotism) have been co-opted by the powers that be, twisted in meaning and foisted onto the people.   The relatively powerless citizens are constantly told that loyalty (and patriotism) are unquestionably good things. Somehow, the media has gotten away with telling us that it was a good thing that Colin Powell was loyal to his boss, even when his boss asked him to stand before the United Nations with a sincere face and tell the world numerous lies that have resulted in the needless deaths thousands of deaths. Loyalty is good.  Dead bodies are bad.  But loyalty that causes dead bodies is good.

Like many things that are going on today, this battle over “loyalty” begins with a battle over the use of a word.  Those of us who believe that the only valid forms of morality are based squarely on empathy need to dig into the linguistic trenches and fight this important battle with vigor.

This linguistic battle needs to be fought whenever anyone in a position of power tells the citizens that they have an unquestionable duty to be loyal, whenever it is suggested that they have a duty to shut up and get with the program.  Whenever we hear this use of the word, we should carefully re-frame the question: are you asking me to support immoral acts?  Are you asking me to acquiesce in conduct that is harmful to other human beings? Are you asking me to give you the moral equivalent of a blank check?

Whenever we hear that someone is allegedly a “loyal” public servant, we should similarly ask: are you suggesting that this person is free to facilitate needless violence and pain simply because he or she is committing these acts in the name of the United States of America?

The proponents of unquestioned loyalty and patriotism cannot withstand these simple questions. Their arguments and motives will collapse when they are reminded that loyalty is not (necessarily) a virtue.  They need to be reminded that the call to be loyal can no longer shield their immoral ways.

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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, Iraq, Language, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I don't like making trite, overused comparisons, but we've heard the claim that loyalty absolves someone of morality before: at Nurenborg. "I was onlyl following orders" means "I was only blindly ahering to my promise of loyalty." That doesn't excuse anything. And the people that cry, "My country, right or wrong," have just fooled themselves into the easiest mode of thinking possible. If you never question your country's actions, you can't really feel guilty about it.

    But we do get an overall image from the media and from everyday people that "loyalty" has no drawbacks. It reminds of the attitude many moderates take about religion: just believe in something, have some kind of spiritual life, and we can understand and respect you. It seems that many people consider blind faith, like loyalty, an inherently good thing.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Too many times, when a swaggering, self-righteous leader talks about "loyalty" or "patriotism," these words are merely euphemisms for what the person actually wants: blind obedience. They can't ask for blind obedience, of course, because that would expose their tyrannical aspirations, so they use the euphemisms as camouflage, hoping the population won't catch on. Unfortunately, many people seem to be easily duped by this camouflage, with the result being things such as the costly and unjustified invasion of uninvolved countries, followed by many unnecessary deaths. I bet you think I'm talking about Bush, but I'm actually talking about Hitler. Nevertheless, the strategy worked for Bush exactly as it worked for Hitler, which is almost certainly why Bush (and his neocon pals) used it.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    To Erika's observation about Nuremberg, the problem with the Nazi claim of following orders is the same problem our soldiers have with such an excuse. The Uniform Code of Military Conduct expressly charges a soldier with a responsibility to disobey illegal or immoral orders, just as was the case in Nazi Germany in the Wermacht. This is an oft-overlooked clause because nobody defines morality in a useful way, so it is subjective.

    But illegal isn't hard. I am to this day dismayed at the number of people who think Ollie North was some kind of hero. Under the law, he should have been court-martialed for sedition and shot. He violated his oath by obeying his President–and not even directly, if we are to believe the details, but only the general "notion" of what Reagan wanted–in opposition to supporting the Constitution and obeying Congress accordingly.

    But my mother, of all people, enlightened me as to the problem: "Most people find it difficult to be faithful to an Idea–they have to have a person to be loyal to." And that does seem to be the case, because–at its simplest–you may still have to live with or around a person you must disobey or disappoint in support of an Idea.

    This is one reason we need to do a better job with teaching function morality–not the judeo-christian stuff, which is still a version of personal loyalty as governor (trust in Jesus), but the difficult work of understanding causality and the application of ethics.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" [Quote attributed to GK Chesterton]

  5. Milan Moravec says:

    Employee loyalty does not provide security. Employee loyalty to management is unemployment. Public and private organizations are into a phase of creative disassembly where constant reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by Chevron, NUMI, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks etc. and the state, counties and cities. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers. Estimates are that the State of California may jettison 47,000 positions.

    Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.

    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised job security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees’s fitting in, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employeer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and lifetime careers, even if they want to.

    Organizations that paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ are now forced to break the implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are finding that the hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.

    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation. Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit continues to meet the needs of customers and constituencies. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.

    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor. Loyalty is dead – get used to it.

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