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.
What is it
Loyalty is usually reckoned to be an important virtue; even loyalty to lost causes is often admired. But loyalty to evil causes is no virtue. To whom and what should one be loyal? When is loyalty a virtue? When is it wrong? And when is it stupid? Ken and John welcome back poet and philosopher Troy Jollimore, author of Friendship and Agent-Relative Morality.
Ken and John begin by exploring what the concept of loyalty means. They first notice that it’s a uniting force in friendships, marriage, and the bond between citizens and country. However, Ken points out that loyalty also divides. For example, soldiers fight and kill other soldiers in the name of loyalty. John notes that with a utilitarian view, where one acts towards the greatest good for the greatest number, it’s hard to make sense of loyalty at all. John poses a hypothetical to Ken: if his wife and a Nobel laureate were drowning, and he could only save one, why give special treatment to his wife strictly based on loyalty? Ken feels that something is wrong with this picture, but John pushes his case. What if Ken could save two people instead of his wife? Or three? Or the whole contingent of Nobel laureates from that year? There seems to be a point where loyalty can go too far.
Troy Jollimore joins the conversation. Why, Ken first asks, does loyalty seem to occupy such a large role in a well lived life? Troy describes the ideas of philosopher Jose Royce, who wrote that loyalty gives shape to human life by determining who someone is, what’s important to them, and granting them purpose. Ken suggests that someone could be loyal to just abstract things like truth and beauty, but Troy counters that there is not much content in the possibility. Human capacities are finite, so individuals must pick and choose particular objects of their loyalty.
In the next segment, Ken, John, and Troy puzzle through what makes loyalty appropriate in some contexts and not in others. Troy says that loyalty to a country doesn’t make much sense. You either have good objective reasons for being loyal, in which case further loyalty reasons are unnecessary, or you don’t have good objective reasons, in which case loyalty shouldn’t have credence. When Ken notices that this same puzzle can be transposed to the individual case, Troy reasserts loyalty in personal relationships is different because it serves to shape identity and direction in a person’s life. Our hosts and guest arrive at the conclusion that decisive, larger loyalties would best be dispensed with, but personal loyalties should not be. A person with no loyalties at all would be living a diminished life indeed.
To sum up the discussion, Troy reiterates that loyalty helps constitute identity but is also dangerous and not something we should take lightly or rush into. John adds that loyalties seem a bit like vices. They are unavoidable, but we should be careful of the ones we take on.
- Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:50) : Philosophy Talk’s very own Roving Philosophical Reporter explores the fandom behind sports teams through a number of interviews with both fans and experts.
- 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:40) : Ian Shoales notices how both brand loyalty and team loyalty have been on the wane in recent years. He cites the advent of internet shopping and modern player contracts as contributing causes.