::Literate Blather::
Monday, November 13, 2006
Five Questions About: Loyalty

(What is loyalty? And why in God’s green earth aren’t their more teaming legions of regular and loyal DaRK PaRTY readers? (What’s wrong with you people?). DaRK PaRTY needed answers to these probing questions and found Professor Simon Keller, a philosophy teacher at Boston University. Simon has written on a number of topics in ethics, political philosophy and metaphysics, and has a particular interest in the ethical issues raised by different forms of loyalty. He has just finished a book called “The Limits of Loyalty,” which will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.)

DaRK PaRTY: What exactly is loyalty?

Simon: When you are loyal to something, you favor it in your thoughts and actions, and you are motivated to do so by the thought that you share with it some kind of special relationship; you favor it because it is your country, or your wife, or your friend, or your football team, or whatever. Beyond that fairly bland characterization, I find it difficult to give a general definition of loyalty. Different kinds of loyalty vary in so many ways. The loyalty you have for your parents, for example, is probably very different from the loyalty you have to your husband or wife, or to your favorite football team, or your local coffee shop.

DP: People have varying degrees of loyalty. What makes some people loyal and others disloyal?

Simon: Well, people are loyal and disloyal in different ways. The disloyal husband may be fiercely loyal to his country. But it is true that loyalty seems to be more important to some people than to others. I'm not sure why. Part of the reason might be that people have different ways of thinking about their moral obligations. Some people think of morality as beginning with the closest relationships, and extending outwards from there; you might think that morality begins with obligations to your family, then moves to your friends, then your colleagues, then your country, then the human race...these people might be more likely to prize loyalty in themselves and other people.

Others think of morality as beginning with a commitment to the basic equality of everybody, and think that more particular moral relationships come later. I wouldn't call those in the second category disloyal, and they may of course be wonderfully loyal in all sorts of ways, but perhaps they are less likely to place a big emphasis on loyalty as such. They are less likely to think of loyalty as the glue that holds the moral world together.

DP: Patriotism is one of the most common kinds of loyalty, but isn't country of origin an accident of birth? What makes people patriotic?

Simon: Yes, country of origin is an accident of birth, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't take it seriously. It is only by an accident of birth, I suppose, that I have my particular mother and father, but that accident underlies a very valuable loving relationship, one that you cannot share with just anyone. Still, I do think that there is something a little suspicious about patriotism. Countries are not like parents; they are big, amorphous, intangible things, whose nature is puzzling and contested. You cannot know your country in the way that you can know another person, and you cannot have a relationship of mutual love and loyalty with a country - not in any literal sense, anyway. So loyalty to country has to be placed into a special category and evaluated on its own terms; it is not just a natural extension of personal loyalties.

As for what makes people patriotic - well, again my inclination is to be suspicious. Patriotism usually (perhaps always) involves pride, or a sense that your own country is not just yours, but is also great. I think that one reason why people are drawn towards patriotism is that it allows them to feel special, or superior, or entitled, just because they were born in one country rather than another.

DP: A high value is placed on loyalty in most cultures. We even have systems in place to strengthen it (marriage, pledges of alliance, etc.). Should loyalty be a quality to be admired?

Simon: I do think that loyalty is to be admired and encouraged, but not in all its forms. People need to be capable of loyalty in order to experience some basic human goods, like the good of having genuine friends. But some forms of loyalty involve delusions, or mindless obedience, or abrogation of responsibility. Sometimes we should wish that people were a little less loyal.

DP: When does loyalty become dangerous?

Simon: Loyalty always involves a degree of vulnerability. Loyalty can be dangerous when its object is dangerous - when it is loyalty to an oppressive government, or a manipulative friend, or an uncaring spouse. It can also be dangerous when it discourages the loyal person from forming her own judgments and beliefs.

Sometimes, we can feel as though we are being disloyal if we don't think that our country is the greatest, or that our friend's novel will be a hit, whether we have good evidence for those beliefs or not. When we have loyalties that move us to make decisions of real consequence (like fighting in a war, or investing in a friend's self-publishing venture), it is important that we are able to step back and make a more objective judgment first.

Read our interview about nuns here

Read our interview about ants here

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