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Loyalties, and why loyalty should be ignored.

Seeing myself as a Ewin, an Australian, and a philosopher involves various loyalties, identifying me with different groups of people. Loyalty, by making us identify with others, takes us beyond the very limited self (roughly the self of the Hobbesian natural condition) that is involved in selfishness and that is usually involved when people consider that self-concern, that aspect of human nature that must be limited if we are to live peaceably, is the main stumbling block to morality. Loyalty can thus be thought of as a version of altruism, as an inclination to identify with others and to share their good. That is to say, loyalty seems opposed to the troublesome aspects of self-concern. As George Fletcher puts it, ...loyalty is the beginning of political life, a life in which interaction with others becomes the primary means of solving problems. Loyalty is the means by which politics triumphs over self-interested economic calculation.(1)

We would, nevertheless, be mistaken to conclude that it must simply be a good in people, something to be encouraged. Fletcher, who sees his task as that of "explicating the value of loyalty" [136] and who also takes the value of loyalty to be as clear as the value of treating people fairly [105], sometimes gives the impression that the value of loyalty can be taken as a given.(2) At other times, he clearly recognizes that loyalty is a mixed bag: Loyalites, like religions, beget countless sins. Kinship ties prompt gifts and bequests that concentrate wealth in particular families. Nepotism favors friends over merit in filling important positions. The greatest sin of loyalty, of course, is war. [151]

The primary issue is: Which loyalties should be encouraged? There is no general truth about the value of loyalty as such. Nevertheless, there are many who take loyalty to be a good thing in itself. This is suggested by the following passage from Fletcher: If treating people fairly is a message worth communicating to pupils, then so is the value of loyalty. In conducting their classes and relating to pupils and students, teachers should respect prevailing bonds of friendship. Consider the way in which the "honor system" for taking examinations exacts disloyalty from students: Those witnessing cheating, whether by friend or stranger, must report the breach to the responsible authorities. As it functions in American military academies, the honor system is ideally suited to breaking down intragroup loyalties and inculcating a strong sense of obedience and loyalty to military superiors. But if loyalty is an important value, disciplinary systems should respect existing patterns of loyalty amongst students. [105]

If my own view of loyalty is correct, then what the students should be taught here is not the value of loyalty but the varying values of different loyalties. Fletcher suggests as much in his remark that "...the question of loyalty does not arise in the abstract but only in the context of a particular relationship" [7] though his view seems to be that loyalty gives such relationships more in common morally than I think it does or can give them. His general view "...that relationships of loyalty should be entitled to be free of the state's intrusive hand" [79] appears to involve a claim about the value of loyalty that I believe to be false, though I also believe that some particular relationships of loyalty are properly protected--that spouses, for example, should not be required to give evidence against each other. Certainly, on my view, loyalty could not be the specific basis of any satisfactory moral theory or even moral position: the loyalty that leads us to live in groups might be a condition of there being any moral positions or moral theories at all, but we need to distinguish between the Women's Temperance Association, the Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi gang, and so on, before we can know whether loyalty is a good thing in any particular case. Once we have loyalty, further moral notions are required to discriminate between proper and improper loyalties. We need to go well beyond the theory of loyalty to "... help us understand the proper structure of communities within which one expects reciprocal caring and benevolence" [20]. There can be no satisfactory loyaltybased morality of the sort that Fletcher seeks. Fortunately, Kantianism and Utilitarianism are not the only other possibilities.

If we concentrate on the objects of the loyalty, then there is no incompatibility at all between expecting loyalty to one group and expecting a refusal of loyalty to another group. Does anybody suggest that it is immoral to try to persuade a criminal to drop his loyalty to his gang, or even to tempt him to be disloyal to that gang for his own gain by offering him immunity from prosecution? One can encourage loyalties selectively, and we should probably do better to think of loyalties than of loyalty. In the case of the honor system, we might ask: does friendship or anything else give this person the right to commit others to improper behavior, as he does if he cheats and demands their support in so doing? Does he act as a friend, a loyal friend, in so committing them? If he does not, by what right could he demand that they cover up for him or claim that loyalty required that they do so? We might ask our student to consider whether somebody so selfish is a proper object of loyalty.

Is loyalty good or bad?

It is not immediately obvious that there is a simple and straightforward answer to this question: loyalty seems sometimes to be a good thing and sometimes to be a bad thing. It might be only loyalty that leads somebody to an act of meritorious self-sacrifice, an act in the absence of which many innocent people would have suffered great harm. In the absence of whatever caused the feeling of loyalty, one might well have regarded the situation as an unfortunate one but not at all one's business: those are innocent people and one does not want to see them suffer, but one is innocent oneself and does not want to suffer, so why should the damage not lie where it falls? And I imagine a case in which these are perfectly reasonable questions and no evil is done if people who feel no loyalty to those who are threatened do not rush in and sacrifice themselves. On the other hand, great good is surely done when loyalty leads somebody to an act of self-sacrifice in such a case. One can hardly deny that loyalty is a good thing in those circumstances. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend."(3) Such an act of love is undeniably an act of great moral merit, and is something produced by the loyalty of a friend;(4) we do not regard it as evil that people do not give their lives indiscriminately for others who are threatened, even if they are prepared to do so for some of their friends.

But there is another side to loyalty. It can also be loyalty that keeps the whistle from being blown, so that products with dangerous faults are allowed onto the market and people suffer unnecessary injury. It can be loyalty that keeps the captured terrorist from disclosing in which public place the bombs have been set to go off in two hours' time. It is when thieves fall out that the honest man comes into his own, and loyalty keeps the thieves from falling out. Such examples are easily multiplied. In cases of that sort, it is clear that loyalty is a bad thing.

So, what procedure can we follow if faced with the question, Is loyalty a good thing? That it sometimes has good consequences and sometimes bad consequences does not mean that the question is unanswerable: exercise can, on occasion, kill people, but despite that, we recognize that exercise is, in general terms a good thing. We cannot deal with the question of whether loyalty is a good thing simply by counting up the "good" and the "bad" cases and giving the verdict to the heading with the greater number. We cannot do that because what is at issue is not merely past cases but also future ones, and we do not know how many cases there will be, or of what sort. Nor can we dispose of the problem by counting up the good and the bad types of loyalty and giving the verdict to the heading with the greater number, because the list of ways of classifying loyalty is quite open-ended. What makes the difference is not simply the consequences of the particular case. The loyalty that leads one to lay down one's life for a friend might not, in fact, save the friend's life: the disease might be further advanced than was thought, or the tyrant might not be taken in by the escape plan. The act of self-sacrifice would still have the moral merit it had in the original story, but it would not have achieved the desired result.

What we can do is consider how we sort out the values of virtues and related qualities of people and compare those questions with the question of how we might sort out whether loyalty is a good quality of character. We shall find, I think, that no satisfactory answer can be given to the general question about loyalty, or that, if a general answer can be given, it has to be that loyalty is a bad thing. But we can then go on to the issue of how we might be able to produce the good consequences of loyalty without the evil ones.

Values of qualities of people

The virtue of courage can cause its possessor great damage, and it can also create danger for those it was intended to protect. The point is a widely recognized one. Courage is, roughly, the readiness to take appropriate risks for worthwhile ends, and risks, even appropriate risks, are still just that: risks. Things can sometimes go wrong. Courageous people will enter dangerous situations that cowards, or even ordinary people, would avoid, and sometimes they suffer for it. So if courage is always a virtue, it is not because it never has unfortunate consequences. That a particular courageous action would have unfortunate consequences, though, is something that could not be known without hindsight,(5) and it is not with hindsight that we act.

That courage is always a virtue, even if it can sometimes have dreadful results, is clear if we consider what life would be like in its absence. By this I do not mean, of course, imagining what life would be like if it were not the case that everybody were a hero, or even what life would be like if one were not a hero oneself. I am thinking not of the exceptional cases for which we award medals and official honors, but rather of everyday guts, the common, mild form of courage, a quality in people that is so everyday that, in fact, we notice its absence much more than we do its presence: a little fortitude or stick-to-it-iveness is the sort of thing that concerns us here.

Without courage, in the sense I have just described, we would cease to have recognizable people. We cannot make a move, let alone live a human life, without being prepared to take some risks and face some difficulties. Nor can one have any principles by which one lives, since one would give up on them at the first difficulty, and one would therefore lack the integrity that makes us persons.

My point here is that to have people you have to have creatures that do, to some extent, commonly possess this quality of character.(6) By and large, people have to have some measure of courage, and, were that not the case, we could have no human life. At a quite practical level, we need a reasonable amount of that quality to have a life fit for people and not merely for beasts. We need some willingness to face up to trouble and prevail over opposition if we are to avoid political, economic, and other slavery, and to have the independence that makes each of us a person and not merely a part of something else.

But the willingness to face down opposition and to stand up for ourselves lies also behind bank robberies, wars (good wars and bad wars), and so on. Without that quality, the fact that different people have differing interests and inconsistent beliefs would simply leave us unhappy and frustrated creatures, unprepared to act as is necessary for any satisfaction. With that willingness, we shall act: our differing interests and beliefs will turn into the interests and beliefs of clashing people; a version of the Hobbesian natural condition becomes possible. What is needed is a more complex quality of character that produces a more discriminating willingness to stand up for ourselves, thus avoiding many of the clashes and making a relatively peaceable human life possible.

But it is not only independence and individuality that are necessay to our lives as people: we must also be able to see ourselves as coming under descriptions that make us members of groups.(7) Despite the way in which philosophers sometimes write, we do not see ourselves as anything like the featureless and entirely independent Cartesian purely thinking beings; we see ourselves in terms of our membership in various groups. This point is very well made by Fletcher in the first chapter of Loyalty. So, if loyalty is what ties us into groups, we might well conclude that there can be no life as a person without loyalty, just as there can be no life as a person without some courage. Are we to conclude, then, that the value of loyalty is like the value of courage?

We saw that, if courage is always to be a virtue, it must be more than a simple willingness to stand up for what we want: it must also involve proper discrimination concerning what to stand up for, when and how to stand up for it, and matters of that sort.(8) An important part of the virtue of courage, though not necessarily of willingness to stand up for what one wants, is good judgment.(9) It is not that courage requires infallibility or that making a mistake means that one showed no courage; the good judgment required is the capacity, even if it is shown fallibly.(10) This is what distinguishes the virtue of courage from the failing of foolhardiness. One important reason why courage is always a good quality of character to have, even if it can lead one into danger and in some cases cause injury, is that part of the virtue of courage is the ability to judge the worthwhileness of the ends (given the risks), to judge the propriety of the possible manners and methods of attining those ends, and so on. Courage, as opposed to recklessness, is not blind, as loyalty can be.

The problem with loyalty is the obvious fact that some loyalties are bad ones:(11) loyalty, for example, to neo-Nazi groups that beat up immigrants; or to street gangs that take part in gang wars; to the danger of innocent bystanders; and so on. It is not simply that loyalty can lead to evil on occasion, just as courage can lead to injury; the evil activity is not an unfortunate byproduct of the loyalty, but something like the organizing principle of the loyalty. What brings the gang together in some cases is, say, no more than its hatred of Asian immigrants and the desire to persecute them, or a desire to gain a large amount of money in a short time by robbing banks. If the problem with loyalty is that it can take bad forms of this sort, then the obvious solution is to make the same move that was made in dealing with courage: build in a capacity for good judgment as part of what it is to have the virtue of loyalty, or as something without which loyalty cannot be a virtue.

But there are problems with building good judgment into loyalty.(12) It is clear that, up to a point, we expect loyal people to stick around even if good judgment would suggest that they leave. Loyalty is a matter of feeling, not of something that we calculate. The calculating person is somebody we can hold by the offer of advantage, but the loyal person will stay even when we have no more to offer: loyal people do not stay around simply for the use they can make of us.(13) And loyalty is not something we consider in deciding whether to stay; loyalty is something in our emotional make-up(14) affecting how we consider other things in making such decisions.

We expect loyal people to set good judgment aside to a certain extent even though we recognize that loyalties will eventually die if the circumstances are not right. But as a friend might lay down his life for another, so he might lie for his friend, hide him from the police, and so on. Even if he did not do so when his friend needed such help, we should expect him to feel some temptation to do so. Loyalty might be the motivation for doing one's duty, but it is also something that will lead one to go beyond duty on occasion. I might, for example, join the firm so that I can earn a living, but when, ten years later, I reject a better offer from another firm, I show that I have developed a loyalty to the firm I first joined; I have come to care about different things. And that is the core of loyalty. Even when loyalty motivates me to do my duty, it does so as a matter of emotional commitment to the object of my loyalty and not merely as a sense of duty.

And that is the important point here: loyalty affects (or is a matter of) what one cares about. The good judgment that is a part of courage involves, among other things, assessing properly the goods to be achieved by the action--seeing what goods will be achieved, what evils will be brought about, and weighing the one against the other. We cannot make that sort of assessment in the case of loyalty: loyalty will affect what one will count as goods and whose interests one cares about. It will affect, as Fletcher shows, who one is and who one sees oneself as being. The goods of a university education are probably worth the sacrifice if it is my son whose education is at issue (and because he is my son, not because he will support me in my old age), but not if it is somebody else I have never heard of who stands in no emotionally or morally special relationship to me. Family loyalty makes my son's education a good for me; it is not a good independent of the loyalty, a good in terms of which the loyalty can be objectively assessed. It is my loyalty that makes me care about that. I might give my life to save my country from enslavement; what makes saving these people a good for me, something for which I might sacrifice my life whereas I might well not sacrifice it for equally worthy people elsewhere in the world, is a matter of loyalty: this is my country; these people are my fellows. One cannot test the loyalty against those sums so as to impose the constraints of good judgment on what will count as loyalty as opposed to something else, as one distinguishes courage from recklessness; loyalty determines what goes into the sums. If loyalty is the test of what goes into the sums, then the sums cannot, on pain of circularity, be the test of what properly goes into loyalty.

Of course, judgments can be made about the objects of loyalty, but the point is that loyalty will affect what those judgments are by affecting what one will count as a good. Because loyalty determines the judgments, those judgments cannot place an effective limitation on loyalty. Judgment of an object of loyalty as good or bad is external to the loyalty; good judgment cannot be internal to loyalty, marking off good loyalty from bad loyalty, as it is internal to courage, where it marks off courage from recklessness.

The virtues are not simply separate from and independent of each other, and part of the good judgment that is part of any virtue is its operation in the context of other virtues.(15) There is nothing especially kind in giving away what is somebody else's; such issues of putative kindness have to be considered within the limits of justice. With none of the concern for the well-being of others that is the raw material of kindness, it is impossible to see how one could have the sort of concern for the rights of others that constitutes a sense of justice--why would I care about their rights, as such, if I did not care about their well-being? As we saw earlier, without courage there can be no exhibition of other virtues: one does not display justice or generosity or any other virtue if one gives in at the first sign of opposition. The virtues nest together, and part of the good judgment involved in having a virtue is judgment by reference to the other virtues. Part of kindness, for example, is the background consideration of justice by reference to whether the time, energy, or money that I give away is my own or somebody else's.(16)

But that, too, is problematic in the case of loyalty, because loyalty frequently determines when and whether one's virtues can come into play.(17) By affecting what I consider to be goods, loyalty affects whether the risks are worthwhile for me and hence whether my courage can come into play. By affecting whom I identify as being in the relevant group, loyalty will affect whom I see as having possible claims of justice on me. I cannot be grateful for help given to people with whom I have no connection at all, but, by affecting whom I identify as mine, loyalty determines those for help to whom I can feel gratitude. And so on. Again there is a problem of circularity if we try to have the virtues play with loyalty the part in good judgment that they play with virtues such as courage.

Loyalty and Loyalties

A virtue such as courage has, as part of itself, good judgment that rules out evil consequences except as accident or mistake. Good judgment cannot work that way with loyalty, which is why we can have loyalties such as that of the neo-Nazi gang that has as its organizing principle a desire to beat up immigrants. Loyalty is not a straightforwardly good thing like courage. But then, qualities other than virtues can be good. A general unwillingness to cause pain is not a virtue, but more like the failing of squeamishness. Still, one might say, if one is going to have a fault in that area, it is better to have that fault than the opposite, a delight in causing pain. A general unwillingness to cause pain might mean that one's children are spoiled and grow up to lead unhappy and inadequate lives, that one cannot help those suffering dislocated fingers, and so on, but it is better to err on that side of the man than on the other.

Might one say similar things of loyalty? A desire to form groups and live socially is a good thing because of what can come of it or be done with it, but what can come of it are good things and bad things as the groups have good or bad organizing principles. Life for people would be impossible in the absence of any inclination to form groups and live socially, which requires loyalty, but an indiscriminate desire to form groups is not obviously something to be encouraged.

But because life for people is social and requires loyalty, the question of whether we are to have loyalty simpliciter does not come up. It is part of human nature that we form such ties; Fletcher is certainly right about that. What does come up is the question of which loyalties to have and which to encourage in our children and our friends and our fellow citizens.(18) One does not simply decide to have or not to have particular loyalties any more than one decides to fall in love or not to, and one should not look at the question that way. One should be aware, of course, that there is an extent to which one can decide not to fall in love--one can stay away from the person with whom one fears one might fall in love. Similarly, one might try to keep one's children away from undesirable groups to which one fears they might form loyalties. Better still, one will try to bring up people who are careful about the attachments they form and are aware of the dangers of becoming involved with bad company or bad groups.

The development of loyalty is something natural to social creatures and not something we need to develop deliberately in general terms; it will not disappear without our encouragement. What we need to concentrate on is the development of discrimination about the objects of loyalty, that is, about particular loyalties. After loyalties are formed, it is likely to be too late for the person involved to exercise cool judgment and proper discrimination, at least for a while, because the loyalty will affect the judgments that person makes. Beforehand, we can concentrate on bringing up people who discriminate properly about the groups they will join, who have so developed the virtues that they will feel uncomfortable in groups with evil organizing principles and who will therefore abandon any loyalties they might form to such groups. We need to concentrate on their other values, not on their loyalty.(19)

And, since loyalty is natural to people, we must expect bad loyalties to be formed if people are marginalized and excluded from the good ones. This marginalization can be seen, for example, in the treatment of some racial groups and some of the unemployed. Those excluded from the mainstream of society, if they are to have anything like a normal human life, must form or enter into another social group and develop their loyalty to that group; it will, in that story, be a group formed in opposition to the exclusive mainstream society. Again, what this indicates is a need to concentrate on the organization of the society and the values expressed in it, not on loyalty. And it indicates a need to make worthwhile groups available for people to join.

Loyalty, in and of itself, undifferentiated, is not a virtue or a value. To treat it as a virtue or a value does not assist in understanding the morality of human relationships, but distorts it; if loyalty has any value, it resides in particular loyalties, and the value that it has in those cases is to be explained in terms of values separate from loyalty. Loyalty cannot itself be a moral theory or the specific basis for a moral theory. What we must do is to ignore loyalty and to concentrate on the virtues and the formation of worthwhile groups, with the worthwhileness of the groups judged in terms of values other than loyalty.


(1)G. FLETCHER, LOYALTY: AN ESSAY ON THE MORALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS 5. (Bracketed numbers in the text refer to pages in Fletcher's book.)

(2)Cf. FLETCHER, xi: "...I began to wonder whether without the Pledge and other patriotic rituals, we Americans of diverse origins would share a common emotional bond to a country that, intellectually, we are prepared both to criticize and defend," where the concern is clearly about the efficacy of means to an accepted end. Cf. also 4-6 and the discussion of Hirschman on the advantages that voice has over exit. This does rather leap over the point that not all institutions should be maintained; some loyalties should be dispensed with. And cf. 9-10, the discussion of betrayal. Betrayal might always be improper, and it does presuppose a loyalty that is forsaken, but this does not imply that loyalty is always a good. Forsaking a loyalty that should never have been formed might not count as betrayal, and not acting from loyalty when one might have done so need not always be betrayal; it might, for example, simply be an expression of the fact that one is very tired at the moment, or that one thinks one has helped one's friend a great deal recently and is entitled to pursue one's own interests at the moment.

(3)John 15:13.

(4)I do not mean to suggest that failure to lay down one's life for Mary means that one was not Mary's friend. This is an exceptional act even for friends, but the loyalty that produces such an act when it is produced between friends is clearly achieving something worth achieving.

(5)We do distinguish fairly carefully in this area about virtues. If the risks are ridiculous, given the end, or if it is obvious that the action will not pay off so that those one is concerned about (oneself or others, or both) would be better off without the action than with it, then to go ahead would not be courageous: it would be foolhardy or reckless, and we do not regard foolhardiness or recklessness as a virtue. Sometimes great risks with only a very slight chance of success are worthwhile, in which case one might show courage by performing an action very likely to have unfortunate consequences. But what it is for such risks to be worthwhile is (in the extreme case) for one to have judged that one would be better off dead than in the situation one would have been in without the action.

(6)For the theory of virtues underlying this, and for argument about whether a virtue must always be a good quality to have, see R.E. EWIN, CO-OPERATION AND HUMAN VALUES (1981) and VIRTUES AND RIGHTS: THE MORAL PHILOSOPHY OF THOMAS HOBBES chs. 6 and 7 (1991).

(7)Emmison & Western, Social Class and Social Identity: A Comment on Marshal et al., 24 SOCIOLOGY, 247 (1990), reported in 45 IPA REVIEW 8 (1992), note that Australians (identified by percentages) regard the following characteristics as very important in determining how they see themselves:
Family group member 62%
"Australian" 52%
Gender 33%
Occupation 30%
Ethnic background 23%
"State" 23%
"Town/District" 16%
Religion 15%
Supporter of sports club 12%
Race 10%
Member of professional association 9%
Supporter of political party 7%
Social class 7%
Member of a trade union 4%

(8)ARISTOTLE, NICOMACHEAN ETHICS 1115 ff., is generally accepted as the classic discussion.

(9)I have discussed this briefly in Loyalty: The Police, 9 CRIM. JUST. ETHICS, Summer/Fall 1990, starting on p. 11, and in more detail in Loyalty and Virtues, 42 PHIL. Q. 403-19 (1992).

(10)For a useful recent discussion of judgment, see C. Larmore, PATTERNS OF MORAL COMPLEXITY ch. 1 (1987).

(11)One might think that this is not so, and that a loyal Nazi, say, is at least better than a disloyal Nazi. I have discussed this sort of case in Loyalty and Virtues, supra note 9, especially 418.

(12)Cf. FLETCHER, 35: "The moral challenge for every devotee of a cause is to find the proper balance of loyalty and independent moral judgment," and 36: "Loyalties generally lead people to suspend judgment about right and wrong." Cf. also 7: "People bring their histories to their loyalties, which implies that the reasons for attachment to a friend, family, or country invariably transcend the particular characteristics of the object of loyalty." Cf. also 39: "These [three] planes of loyalty are distinguished by the role of rectitude in maintaining loyalty. In loving relationships, the sense that one is doing the right thing plays a minimal role in the nurturing [of] the bond. In political action, the loyalty of participants to each other reinforces the sense of righteousness in holding firm to the cause. Religious loyalties vacillate between an uncritical submission to God's word and a critical sense that only that which is right should be treated as God's command." The critical sense to which Fletcher refers in this passage is clearly not loyalty; what he is describing in the case of religious loyalties is a conflict between loyalty and critical appraisal. And he slides past the fact that group loyalty can start as personal loyalty in the many cases in which what matters to the person is simply membership, that he or she is part of some group. The sense of righteousness about the group's activities and beliefs might then emerge from the loyalty and not exist independently to be reinforced by the loyalty.

(13)And, of course, making use of people can be perfectly proper: any standard commercial relationship involves properly making use of somebody, though it is usually a two-way making use. It is OK to get a mechanic to fix my car provided that I pay him at the agreed rate; we do not fall short of propriety if we do not go further and listen to each other's tales of marital problems, and so on.

(14)Just how basic a part of our emotional make-up it is, and thus how fundamentally it will affect our considerations, is made clear by FLETCHER, ch. 1.

(15)Cf. my VIRTUES AND RIGHTS, supra note 6, ch. 7.

(16)The role of the other virtues here is, indeed, likely to be background. It will not be a matter of explicit consideration in most cases, but simply of what is built into the way the agent sees the situation.

(17)Cf. my Loyalty and Virtues, supra note 9, at 415-17.

(18)That is to say, cases such as those of Blunt, Pollard, and Vanonu (see FLETCHER, 41 ff) do have to be argued out.

(19)Contra FLETCHER, 43-44, a theory of loyalty will not do the job of marking off the good loyalties from the bad or the right objects of loyalty from the wrong.
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Title Annotation:Loyalty
Author:Ewin, R.E.
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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