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Fletcher on loyalty and universal morality.

George Fletcher's Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships is a challenging, provocative essay on the moral status of loyalties and personal relationships. Fletcher tells us that this focus on loyalty grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the moral universalism of Kant, Bentham, and political liberalism. Like other personalists and communitarians, he seeks to raise the status of personal relationships and explore the implications of making them central. This leads him to interesting discussions of many issues: flag burning, the legitimacy of flag salutes and other rituals to inculcate patriotism, surrogate parenting, idolatry, and religious liberty. What ties these diverse discussions together is Fletcher's desire to move away from a kind of knee jerk liberalism that always gives priority to individual rights over community needs and that stresses consent and voluntary action as the primary (or sole) sources of moral and political obligation. Flectcher emphasizes the involuntary nature of many obligations and the importance of personal and communal relations in our moral life.

I have much sympathy with Fletcher's desire to take loyalty seriously. Like him, I formed my initial views about loyalty during the years of the Vietnam war. Resistance to patriotism seemed the appropriate response at a time when loyalty seemed to mean no more than support for an unjustified war. Re-reflecting on these issues in the 1980s, it became apparent that unbridled forms of individualism need to be counterbalanced by a concern for the good of the community.(1) Patriotism may be something that we need, even if its traditional forms can be used to encourage uncritical support of unjust wars.

I admire and support Fletcher's desire to get beyond dogmatic reactions and rethink issues having to do with patriotism and community obligations. Nonetheless, I think that he goes badly astray in his criticisms of moral universalism and that his analysis of loyalty is mistaken in important ways. It is these weaknesses that I will focus on in this paper because they need to be remedied if we are to understand the issues that perplex Fletcher and to solve the problems that motivated his book.


While Fletcher's title leads one to expect a systematic analysis of the nature of loyalty, much of his discussion focuses on particular situations involving loyalty. There are long discussions of Antigone, for example, and of Abraham's willingness to obey God's command to sacrifice Isaac. In general, he does not attempt to articulate or defend a general theory of loyalty.

Nonetheless, in various places, Fletcher makes a number of general claims about the nature of loyalty. I want to focus on three that I believe are both important and mistaken.

The first involves the logical structure of loyalty. In Fletcher's view, loyalty is always a relation among at least three parties. As he writes: There are always three parties, A, B, and C, in a matrix of loyalty. A can be loyal to B only if there is a third party C (another lover, an enemy nation, a hostile company) who stands as a potential competitor to B, the object of loyalty. [8](2) This is an interesting view of the structure of loyalty, but I do not believe it is correct. While it is certainly true that loyalty to a person or group can be threatened by the possibility of a shift of loyalty to some competitor, it is an important fact that loyalties can also be threatened by indifference and diminished concern. Both loyalty and disloyalty can exist in the absence of competitors. A parent can fail to be loyal to his children, for example, by neglecting the task of tending to their growth. He need not do this because he has found other more attractive children to care for. He might simply loses interest in his own. Or, a husband can fail to be loyal to his wife by being indifferent to her. If he fails to provide her support and affection when they are needed, this is a failure of loyalty, whether or not it is caused by his becoming involved in a competing relationship with another woman. "I thought I could count on you, but I was wrong" is a charge of disloyalty, whether or not that particular terms is used.

The flawed nature of Fletcher's three term analysis shows up in the following somewhat odd comment about the relationship between loyalty, patriotism, and the Constitution. He writes: Perhaps the Constitution invites not patriotism but loyalty. Yet even this usage would be odd. How might one be disloyal to the Constitution? There is no alternative lurking in the wings. [63] This comment is odd because disloyalty to the Constitution is a distinct possibility that people worry about and take steps to prevent. Awareness of this possibility leads us to require officials to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. If they fail to abide by that oath, they have been disloyal to the Constitution. Richard Nixon and Oliver North were both disloyal in that sense. They took upon themselves the discretionary power to violate the constraints that the Constitution imposes on officeholders. They thought that their goals were so worthy and their chosen means so essential that they could betray the Constitution.

How can one be disloyal to the Constitution then? By failing to uphold its provisions and honor the constraints that it places on the actions of officeholders. One need not do this because one has become enamored of other countries or other constitutions. One simply succumbs to other motives to violate the Constitution's provisions.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that it is necessarily wrong to override the Constitution. While I support neither Nixon's nor North's actions, there may be other cases where violating the Constitution would be justified. My point is conceptual rather than moral: the notion of disloyalty to the Constitution makes sense. Fletcher's analysis, however, misleads him and renders him unable to make sense of this form of disloyalty.

Finally, the failure of the three term analysis emerges in a case that Fletcher discusses at length, the relationship between God and the people of Israel as it is described in the Bible. According to Fletcher's view, the people of Israel could be disloyal to God only through idolatry, the worship of other gods. What he neglects is the form of disloyalty that showed itself in the failure of the Israelites to follow God's commands. Such failures had many causes and were not limited to the transfer of allegiance to the wrong gods. I conclude from this that loyalty and disloyalty require only two parties, not three.

A second claim that Fletcher makes about the logic of loyalty is that loyalty is an all or nothing concept. It does not admit of degrees. He writes: As loyal or disloyal, the citizen is either in or out, here or there....[Y]ou cannot be lawful or loyal sometimes more, sometimes less. When it comes to the dichotomies of law and loyalty, you are on one side or the other. [62] This either/or perspective is both conceptually mistaken and morally dangerous, since it encourages the kind of "us vs. them" perspective that leads to witch hunts and loyalty tests, both of which Fletcher himself condemns.

In fact, loyalty is not an all or nothing thing. Both in its patriotic and its personal forms, loyalty comes in degrees. Consider Sarah, for example, an employee who is loyal to her employer in that she works conscientiously to do a good job, even going beyond the ordinary requirements and giving her work the extra effort required for excellence. While Sarah is a loyal employee, she nonetheless would consider a job offer from another company. Compare her with Melissa, an employee who, in addition to working hard for the company, would not accept a better job at another company. She feels totally committed to working for this one company. I would contend that both Sarah and Melissa are loyal employees, even though one possesses a higher degree of loyalty than the other.

In general, loyalty does not exhibit an "all or nothing' nature. If we look at the form of loyalty we call patriotism, for example, we will see that it consists of a complex set of attitudes, each one of which is capable of stronger or weaker forms. According to a definition I defend elsewhere, to be patriotic is to possess a set of four attitudes:

1 special affection for one's country

2 a sense of personal identification with one's country

3 special concern for the well-being of one's country

4 a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of one's country(3) If this list correctly describes the nature of patriotic loyalty and if each of these attitudes (affection, identification, concern, and willingness to make sacrifices) comes in varying degrees of strength, then it follows that loyalty can be a matter of degree. If A's affection, identification, or concern for her country is genuine but less than B's, then A can be less loyal than B without being disloyal or unpatriotic.

Granted, there is a minimal level below which loyalty is lacking, but the fact remains that above this level, there is a range of greater and lesser commitment, arising from greater or lesser degrees of affection, identification, concern, and willingness to sacrifice. Some patriots will be like Nathan Hale, eager to give their lives on behalf of their country, while other patriots may care deeply about doing their fair share to promote the well-being of the country, while being reluctant to sacrifice their lives or limbs on its behalf.

The same point emerges if we consider the connections between loyalty and reliability. A loyal person is a person who is reliable and can be counted on by those to whom she is loyal. If a person cannot be counted on at all or can be counted on only when the costs of giving support are very low, we would not call that person loyal. But just as a car or other device can be more or less reliable, so can a person be relied on to a greater or lesser extent. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of reliability generally and of the kind of human reliability that loyalty implies. Since loyalty is a form of reliability and since reliability comes in degrees, then loyalty must come in degrees as well. Contrary to Fletcher's claim, the concept of loyalty has the logical form of "more or less" rather than "either/or."

A third idea about loyalty that Fletcher asserts is that loyalty involves uncritical support or unquestioning obedience. He writes: Loyalties generally lead people to suspend judgment about right and wrong. In a loving relationship or in the loyalty of group action, the loyal person defers to the judgment of the other....[36] In making this claim, Fletcher affirms the spirit of "my country, right or wrong" as paradigmatic of loyalty. In doing so, however, he accepts the very features of patriotism that give rise to legitimate worries about its desirability. I believe that Fletcher is both morally and conceptually wrong on this point.

It is simply false that the suspension of moral judgment is typical of loyalty relationships. In our personal relationships with friends, spouses, children, and parents, we do not typically show our loyalty to them by suspending our ability to make moral judgments. While this kind of requirement is expressed by the slogan "my country, right or wrong," it is not typical of loyalties generally, and in my view, we should reject this unconditional support as a negative and undesirable form of patriotism. There is no reason why loyalty to our country should involve the equivalent of a moral lobotomy.(4) It may be that Fletcher is misled in this area by his discussion of Abraham's loyalty to God. Personally, I am not enamored of the model that Abraham presents when accepting God's command to kill Isaac. More uplifting, I think, is Abraham's reaction to God's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. That same Abraham, in spite of his loyalty, questions God and calls on God to constrain his actions within the limits of justice. Let us suppose, however, that Abraham was right not to challenge God's command to kill Isaac. Even if this were so, it scarcely follows that a person's relationship with an omnipotent, omniscient being should be the paradigm for our relations with the powerful but fallible people who hold public office and sometimes demand that we kill and destroy on behalf of (what they claim is) our country's interests.

Note that in denying that loyalty must be unconditional and that it involves a suspension of moral judgment, I do not mean to deny Fletcher's claim that loyalty to persons and countries is important. The loyalty that we need, however, is precisely the kind that does not rule out independent moral judgment. Loyalty does require that our concern for a person or group sometimes override other kinds of concerns, but it does not require that we act immorally in support of those we care about.

In summary, then, I believe that Fletcher's analysis of loyalty is mistaken in three respects: loyalty is not a three term relation, it is not an either/or concept, and it does not require uncritical support or the suspension of moral judgment.

Loyalty and Universal Morality

Along with a number of recent writers, Fletcher is troubled by the apparent incompatibility between personal loyalties and the impersonal demands of universal morality. He believes that while the ethic of loyalty leads us to attach special importance to certain individuals or groups, the ethic of universalism requires us to treat all individuals equally. Forced to choose between impartial universalism and partialist loyalties, Fletcher choose loyalties.(5) This theme is central to Fletcher's book. As he says, This book would probably never have taken shape unless I had grown skeptical of the entire tradition of impartial ethics and had come to recognize that the normal commitments of our lives--expressed as "loyalties"--provide a sounder basis for the moral life than an Enlightenment ideal that is...incapable of realization. [x] It is worth nothing, however, that Fletcher is not entirely comfortable with his decision to replace moral universalism with a communitarian, loyalist ethic. On the concluding page of the book, he writes: The challenge for our time is uniting the particularist leaning of loyalties with the demands, in some contexts, of impartial justice and the commitment, in all contexts, to rational discourse. (175) Apparently, then, Fletcher hopes for some way to resolve the incompatibility of universalist and particularist models of morality, but he sees no way himself to achieve such a result.

Fletcher's discussion raises three important questions. First, are loyalties and universal morality compatible or incompatible with one another? Second, if they are incompatible, should we reject loyalties, or should we reject universal morality? Third, if they are compatible, what is the relationship between them?

Are loyalties and universal morality incompatible? Fletcher is not alone in thinking that they are, and according to some interpretations of universal morality, he is certainly correct. If we take moral universalism to be the view that all people should be treated in the same way and that the fact that two people are related to one another is an irrelevant moral feature, then it follows that morality forbids us to treat those we love or care about with special attention. The basic feature of morality, on this view, is strict impartiality, and all forms of partiality are morally forbidden.(6)

John Stuart Mill appears to commit himself to this view when he writes: [T]he happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.(7) Implicit in Mill's comment is that the happiness of other specific individuals is also to be regarded in a strictly impartial way. Whether a child is a stranger or my son or daughter is not to count in my assessments of what to do.

That Mill's view is not idiosyncratic is made clear by James Rachels. He writes: Almost every important theory of morality includes the idea of impartiality. The basic idea is that each individual's interests are equally important: from within the moral point of view, there are no "privileged" persons; everyone's life has the same value.(8) In general, there are plausible readings of both the utilitarian and the Kantian traditions that make impartiality central and thus make the partiality displayed in loyalties and personal relationships morally suspect.

Nonetheless, it is not obvious that this extreme impartialist perspective is required by moral universalism. It is striking, for example, that neither Kant, nor Bentham, nor Mill is noted for supporting the abolition of the family or of friendship. In fact, Kant thought that "striving for perfect a duty imposed by reason...."(9) He also believed in marriage as a morally necessary condition for permissible sex.(10) While Mill was a critic of marriage, he argued for its refor, not its abolition, and he thought that parents had a strong duty to educate and provide for their children.(11) Since all three were proponents of universal morality, they either overlooked the inconsistency between it and personal loyalties, or they thought that their theories permitted such special relationships to exist.

I want to sketch three ways in which the compatibility of universal morality and special relationships can be defended. What I have to say here is not especially original, but it goes to the heart of Fletcher's thesis. He assumes that particular loyalties are incompatible with moral universalism because he considers only the most extreme forms of universalism and gives no consideration to attempts to render universalism and particular loyalties compatible with one another. If they are compatible, then we need not make the hard choice that Fletcher thinks we are faced with.(12)

Some utilitarians, including Mill, have argued that we can defend special duties on the grounds of a kind of moral division of labor. As Mill argues, most of us have limited powers and knowledge, and the consequences of our actions typically are felt within a relatively small circle of people. Because our actions are efficacious only within this small circle, we can best contribute to the overall well-being of all by taking care of those to whom we have special ties.(13) More generally, a rule utilitarian can argue that a rule like "take care of your own children" can be justified by the benefits of all parents tending to their own children, rather than trying to care for so many different children that their efforts are spread too thin. This is especially evident if we think of the great amount of time, effort, and care that is necessary for the proper nurturing of a child. We simply do not have the emotional or temporal resources to provide this kind of care for more than a few children.(14)

Note that the rule "care for your children" appears to be universalizable in a Kantian sense. There is no reason why caring for one's own children could not be willed to be a law of nature. Nor does it conflict with treating all children as ends in themselves or members of a kingdom of ends. If, for example, it is impossible for any individual to provide the proper level of parental care to all children (which it is, given the high demands of this task), then my failure to provide such care to all in no way shows a lack of respect for their human worth. If this is true, then Kantian morality does not require me to be impartial in the way that Fletcher thinks.(15)

What Kantian morality would presumably forbid are actions that abuse the children of others. I could not, for example, universalize a maxim to kidnap the children of others in order to collect ransom to provide for my own children. To do so would be to sanction the kidnapping of my own children by others for similar purposes. It would also violate the prohibition on using others as means only and not as ends in themselves.

More generally, one can say that a universal morality can permit special efforts on behalf of people we love or care about, but it imposes constraints on what we can do on their behalf. Being in personal relationships to others does not justify our doing anything on their behalf. Our personal concern or loyalty does justify special efforts, but universal morality imposes limits on the permissible range of actions we can perform for their good.(16)

Putting aside special theories like Kant's or Bentham's, common sense morality seems to provide a model for rendering moral universalism and personal loyalites consistent with one another. Common sense morality permits us to pursue our own personal goals and gives us wide latitude in the selection of these goals. If they include the well-being of specific people, then we can act for their good. Nonetheless, while permitting these special efforts, common sense morality imposes constraints that normally forbid us to kill, injure, or otherwise harm others in order to promote our own well-being or the well-being of people we care about.(17)

Note, too, that common sense morality includes special duties. Not only are we permitted to make special efforts on behalf of people we care about, we are actually required to do so when we stand in special relationships to them. Parents have special obligations to their children, just as spouses and friends have them to one another. Teachers have special duties to their students and physicians to their patients. In all such cases, the general good recedes into the background, and the interests of particular people move to the moral foreground. While the following formulation oversimplifies things, one might say that we show our respect and concern for other human beings generally by adhering to negative duties (that is, by abstaining from acts such as killing and injuring), while we show our concern for those to whom we have special ties by acting positively on their behalf. Understood in this way, there is no conflict between the special relationships Fletcher favors and the universal morality he feels he must reject.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that there are never serious moral conflicts between our duties to specific people and our more general obligations.(18) Rather, my point is that there is nothing inherently contradictory in the relationship between special loyalties and universal morality. In fact, given that loyalties and special relations to individuals or groups are a significant cause of conflict, we need universal morality to lay down the ground rules for telling us what is permissible and what is forbidden in the pursuit of our own group's well-being. In general, the Kantian model is helpful here: do only for your own group what you would be willing to universalize for members of all groups. On this model, for example, aggressive war would not be a permissible option while fighting in self-defense would be. Likewise, if our own children or our own country is well provided for, we might have a duty to devote some of our resources to giving aid to strangers who are in need. We can grant moral priority to those close to us without being indifferent to the fate of those who are distant.(19)

My general point here is that while loyalties and special duties may be inconsistent with an extreme impartialist interpretation of universal morality, there are plausible interpretations of moral universalism that permit loyalties and special ties to flourish. If this is so, then a desire to do justice to personal loyalties and relationships does not require us to reject moral universalism.

In addition, if loyalty to a particular country is morally permissible, and if social cohesion is a good worth supporting, then we can address the issues that Fletcher raises about permissible and impermissible ways of generating loyalty and social cohesion. The moral universalist who recognizes the importance of special ties need not be indifferent to problems about the inclucation of patriotic values. Nor need the moderate universalist necessarily be hostile to the use of patriotic rituals and symbols to strengthen the sense of community.

Like all other goals, however, the means for strengthening social cohesion must be limited to actions that are morally permissible, and one need not be committed to extreme individualism to see that individuals must not be tyrannized in the course of efforts to secure the interests of the group. Here, as in all other areas of life, we need to find ways to pursue our goals that do not violate general, non-loyalty-based moral rules.


We live in a world in which close personal and social relationships need to be nurtured and encouraged. At the same time, the need for cooperation and care between those to whom we are close must not degenerate into indifference or hostility to outsiders. When it does, the results are discrimination, abuse, expulsion, war, and genocide. (Sadly, these results are the stuff of daily life and not merely a philosopher's hypothetical extrapolations.) We need to develop our positive sense of "us" without at the same time strengthening a negative set of feelings about "them."

Fletcher writes mainly from a concern with "us" and calls attention to important questions about the nurturing of personal and civic relationships. Because he views the universalist, impartialist tradition as an obstacle to his own concerns, he rejects this tradition and unwittingly joins the company of chauvinists and xenophobes who champion an uncritical, excessive form of patriotic devotion.

I agree with Fletcher that we need to rethink our views about patriotism and personal relationships and that in doing so, we cannot be guided by simple-minded forms of universalism. Nonetheless, as I have argued, it is a mistake to give up the intellectual and moral resources of universalism. The most important reason why it is a mistake is because rejecting universalism provides intellectual support for inhumane forms of exclusive concern. In addition, it is a mistake for Fletcher to reject universalism because doing so is unnecessary for either the rethinking of issues that he favors or the revaluing of personal relations that he advocates.


(1)For the best known recent criticism of excessive individualism in American life, see R. BELLAH, W. SULLIVAN, A. SWIDLER, & S. TIPTON, HABITS OF THE HEART (1986). Also relevant is M. JANOWITZ, THE RECONSTRUCTION OF PATRIOTISM (1983).

(2)G. FLETCHER, LOYALTY: AN ESSAY ON THE MORALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS (1993). Bracketed numbers in the text refer to pages in Fletcher's book.

(3)For this definition, and a general discussion of issues involving patriotism, see S. NATHANSON, PATRIOTISM, MORALITY, AND PEACE (1993).

(4)For a criticism of unconditional obedience and a defense of the idea of "critical citizenship," see S. NATHANSON, SHOULD WE CONSENT TO BE GOVERNED?--A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY (1992).

(5)For other similar criticisms of impersonal morality, see. MacIntyre, Is Patriotism a Virtue? THE LINDLEY LECTURE (1984), and Oldenquist, Loyalties, 79 J. PHIL., 173-93 (1982). For defenses of impersonal morality against these criticisms, see Nathanson, In Defense of "Moderate Patriotism, 99 ETHICS, 535-52 (1989), and S. NATHANSON, supra note 3, chs. 5-9.

(6)Peter Singer appeals to this extreme form of impartialism to support his plea for famine relief in Famine, Affluence, and Morality, 1 PHIL. & PUB. AFF., 229-44 (1972). Leo Tolstoy uses this type of view as a basis for denouncing patriotism in On Patriotism and Patriotism, or Peace? Both of these are included in TOLSTOY'S WRITINGS ON CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND NON-VIOLENCE (1968).

(7)J. S. MILL, Utilitarianism, in UTILITARIANISM AND OTHER WRITINGS 268 (M. Warnock ed. 1962).


(9)I. KANT, THE DOCTRINE OF VIRTUE 140 (M.J. Gregor, trans. 1964).

(10)Id. at 87.

(11)J. S. MILL, On Liberty, supra note 7, at 236-42.

(12)For a careful analysis of the "partialist/impartialist" controversy from the point of view of a partialist, see Blum, Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Philosophy 98 ETHICS 472-91 (1988).

(13)See J. S. MILL, supra note 7 at 270.

(14)For an excellent discussion of the complex task of raising children, see S. RUDDICK, MATERNAL THINKING chs. 3-5 (1989).

(15)For more on universalizing special duties, see S. NATHANSON, supra note 3, ch. 6.

(16)For a similar view about the compatibility of justice and loyalty, see M. BARON, THE MORAL STATUS OF LOYATY (1984).

(17)This model of morality is best articulated by B. GERT in MORALITY: A NEW JUSTIFICATION OF THE MORAL RULES (1988).

(18)For an insightful exploration of these tensions, see T. NAGEL, EQUALITY AND PARTIALITY (1991).

(19)For further development of this idea, see S. NATHANSON, supra note 3, ch. 13.
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Title Annotation:Loyalty; George P. Fletcher
Author:Nathanson, Stephen
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:A question of loyalty.
Next Article:Loyalty and identity: reflections on and about a theme in Fletcher's 'Loyalty.' (George P. Fletcher) (Loyalty)

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