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.