15 July 2010

Our topic this week is loyalty.  Loyalty binds people together.  Friendships, marriages, even nations are built on loyalty.  Try imagining a person who has no loyalty whatsoever to anything or anyone.   Such a person would be friendless, loveless, nationless.  She would feel no devotion to any higher cause or principle – like truth or justice.   She would not even be a fan of any sports team.   A life like that would be empty, devoid of many of the things that make us fully human.

Of course, loyalties are not all created equal though.   Loyalty to a sports team is a shallow form of loyalty.  Loyalty to a nation can sometimes demand too much.  Or think of the loyalty that some battered wives display to their abusive husbands.   There’s a misplaced loyalty if there ever was one. 

Loyalty goes hand in hand with trustworthiness.   If you can’t trust your spouse not to beat you or cheat on you, then your spouse doesn’t deserve your loyalty.  If you can’t trust your government not to send young men off to fight in fruitless, forlorn wars, then your government doesn’t deserve your loyalty.

That’s connected to something else.  Earlier I  said that loyalty unites and that’s a good thing.  But loyalty also divides. And that’s a bad thing.  For example, soldiers at war are driven to kill each other by their competing loyalties.   Or think of a parent who lavishes more toys on his/her children than they really need, out of a sense of loyalty and devotion, while entirely ignoring the needs of poor, abused, malnourished children around the world.  If he would just spend a little bit of his wealth elsewhere, he could do a tremendous amount of good.  But his loyalty has blinded him to the needs of others.

Loyalties can also divide a person from herself.   Loyalty and devotion to your family, for example, can pull in one direction, while loyalty to  an employer can pull you in an entirely different direction. Managing such conflicting loyalties is no easy task. 

You could think that you just have to decide.  You have to decide where your highest loyalty lies.  Do you most  want to be a better parent or a better philosophy professor and radio host? 

But it doesn’t seem quite right to me that choosing between conflicting loyalties is a brute decision, a matter of simply deciding for yourself to whom or what you owe the higher allegiance.   There must be some principles --  some moral principles --  that tell you who and what you owe loyalty to and to what degree you owe loyalty.  Such moral principles should  help you resolve such conflicts on an objective moral basis. 

Speaking of abstract moral principles, though,  depending on your  moral outlook, the very idea of loyalty can seem morally problematic. Take utilitarianism, for example.   Its highest principle is that you should always act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.    But it’s  actually pretty hard to make sense of the very idea of loyalty if you are a utilitarian – at least if you are a crude act utilitarian. 

To see why think about two people drowning.  You’re in a boat and can save only one of them.  One of them happens to be a Nobel Laureate who has discovered a cure for cancer.  The other happens to be your spouse.  Which one do you save? 

The obvious answer to me is that I’d save my wife.  But you’d have a hard time justifying that answer on utilitarian grounds.  That’s because utilitarian morality has a hard time justifying giving the kind of special weight to one’s wife that loyalty demands.  In deciding what to do, her well-being should count, to be sure, but  no more, and no less, in your calculations than the well being of any arbitrary person. 

That seems wrong to me.  But I have to admit that I have hard time putting my finger on just why.  My wife means a whole lot more to me than just any arbitrary other person.  But does my loyalty and devotion really morally obligate or entitle me to give more weight to her well-being than to the well-being other people? 

Consider a further test of just how much added moral weight loyalty endows my wife’s well being with.  Suppose it was a matter of saving my wife, while letting two other people or three or four other people drown.  Would I still be inclined to save her and let the others drown?

Here I feel something of a quandary – perhaps divided loyalties are tugging at me. On balance loyalty, and the special concern that goes with it, seem to me like very good things.  But loyalty can be taken too far and can demand too much.    And drawing the line is a tricky matter. 

Clearly,  we need some help sorting this all out.   And luckily for us, help is on the way, in the form of our guest, poet and philosopher, Troy Jollimore.  Troy has thought long and hard about loyalty, love, friendship and morality.   So it should be a fun episode.   If you’ve got the time,  give a listen.  Maybe even call in. 

Comments (9)

Guest's picture


Sunday, July 18, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Loyalty is entirely a human thing. It's not necess

Loyalty is entirely a human thing. It's not necessary to have this *virtue*, especially if one is perfectly contented in life without it. You said a person who lacks loyalty would be friendless, loveless, nationless. Friends, love, Nations are actually human constructs. It's nothing to do with the truth. In spirituality they are all called illusions.
I am not speaking against loyalty. But I only want to say that loyalty is a quality which people display in order to win worldly things like friends, love (relationships), Nation etc. Loyalty is not an innate quality. And if one is fine without friends-love-nation-religions-etc then one has every right to live without loyalty. That is, live FREELY. As long is one is not doing unjust harm to others.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, July 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Loyalty in some senses like to a nation is foolish

Loyalty in some senses like to a nation is foolishness (society teaches us to be loyal and we blindly follow it). You are loyal to your country only when dealing at the country level. If dealing at state level,you are more loyal to your state than to the country. If loyalty can change depending on the level we are dealing with, then you are not loyal to any. You just want to take a position.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, July 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

It seems that a person with no loyalty typically h

It seems that a person with no loyalty typically has two titles:
1) Psychopath
2) Supreme Leader.
To say that these life choices has no real value seems rather shallow. I am sure the psychopath would disagree while hanging your body from some nearby pointy thing. Perhaps you need to watch "The silence of the lambs" again.
On the other hand, Loyalty does have the advantage that it helps many people live and work together. But that seems more like science than philosophy. Sorry.

sheldon's picture


Tuesday, July 27, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"One of them happens to be a Nobel Laureate who ha

"One of them happens to be a Nobel Laureate who has discovered a cure for cancer. The other happens to be your spouse. Which one do you save?"
This is not so difficult. Do we already have the cure for cancer that the scientist produced? Oh good, we do? Then I save my wife. But wait, this also seems like a good opportunity to get rid of a wife! So I guess will save the scientist. ;)

Guest's picture


Saturday, September 25, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Loyalty is a myth that people try to achieve these

Loyalty is a myth that people try to achieve these days but with no success. Many strong elements in society prevent people to practice it. Unfortunately if we try different dimensions in life perhaps we can change that sad reality ferris wanli minn abstraction in new dilemma of life. Why not if we can just choose to change our life style to be more successful and assertive, We need to follow our beliefs no matter what the winds of society try to drift our thoughts.

Guest's picture


Friday, September 14, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Loyalty like compassion and

Loyalty like compassion and faith are socially valuable emotions among subjects but they are emotions that lead to arbitrary and divisive actions among leaders and with in democracies.

yixuan's picture


Thursday, February 7, 2019 -- 8:38 AM

It says loyalty is very

It says loyalty is very important in the article, " a person who has no loyalty whatsoever to anything or anyone, a life like that would be empty, devoid of many of the things that make us fully human." However, I disagree. When we do need to choose to choose from utilitarianism and loyalty. For me, I won't think a lot, just make a choice that I like. I believe that be loyal to myself is also a kind of loyalty. Live happily. As long is one is not doing unjust harm to others.

clevernick.com's picture


Thursday, February 7, 2019 -- 8:42 AM

In my mind, loyalty is kind

In my mind, loyalty is kind of your faith. As the example of saving a talent or your own wife, however, you can only save one of them. This is a good example that loyalty is like your faith, your own belief.

Guest's picture


Thursday, February 7, 2019 -- 8:52 AM

I don't think that people

I don't think that people should always follow the option that others will consider as loyal. First of all, others might not know what the truth is and in different situations, we might have different choices depending on who it is, why did it happened or even our mood. It isn't right or wrong to make any choices as long as we don't harm others initiative or know that we will regret it. Taking the example in the article, if it were me, I will choose to save my spouse even if the whole world disagrees with me because it is my family not theirs and I have the right to choose. It is a choice to sacrifice myself and save people but I am not forced to. People should give enough respect and loyalty to each other in order to stay as trustworthy friends or families, yet this is a mutual thing. People decide whether it is their limit of loyalty and if someone doesn't agree with each other than maybe they're just not the right person to be with.