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Loyalty and identity: reflections on and about a theme in Fletcher's 'Loyalty.' (George P. Fletcher) (Loyalty)

George Fletcher argues in his book Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships(1) that "the basis of loyalty... is the historical self" [23]. By this he means that questions of loyalties "do not arise in the abstract but only in the context of a particular relationship" [7]. That is to say that "people bring their histories to their loyalties" [7]. For Fletcher, "the core sense of loyalty" is that it is "an obligation in every person's sense of being historically rooted in a set of defining fmilial, institutional, and national relationships" [21]. Thus, "[i]n acting loyally, the self acts in harmony with its personal history. One recognizes who one is. Actions of standing by one's friends, family or nation reveal that identity. The self sees in its action precisely what history requires it to do" [25].

Fletcher divides loyalty relationships into three different types: loyalties to individuals, to groups, and to God. He tells us: The historical self finds expression in all three dimensions of loyalty. In personal and family relationships, the child acquires a sense of personality incorporating others as intimate faces in his or her biography. In the genesis of group loyalties, parallel changes occur in teh adult sense of self. Membership in a company or a political party, citizenship in a nation or a community, enter into the foundations of personality. In the relationship between God and man, God's historical link to the Jews becomes the means by which God identifies himself. As remembering Sinai is an indispensable part of a Jew's sense of self, mediating on the historical moment at Calvary is part of what it means to be Christian. Loyalty sometimes takes the face of fidelity to friends, sometimes of fealty to nations, sometimes of faith in God. In all three dimensions of loyalty, the historical self generates a duty to stand by those who have become a critical part of one's biography. [38-39] Fletcher not only draws our attention to the different types of loyalties there are, but also reminds us that people often have to decide between conflicting loyalties. Much of his book is taken up with critical discussions of conflicts of loyalties both from the past and from the present, and both from literature and from life. Much of what Fletcher writes about these specific conflicts of loyalties is interesting, informative, perceptive, and sensible. In his discussions Fletcher displays both his wide erudition and his good judgment. Nevertheless, I find myself unable to agree with all that he has written. My disagreements with him flow, I believe, from his saying things which (a) seem to imply that it is possible to detach the loyalty part of a relationship from the rest of it, and (b) his failure to recognize that all relationships involving loyalty are essentially emotional. It is only fair to point out that at some points in his book he says things which imply that he himself does recognize that loyalty cannot be detached from the relationship of which it is a part and that he recognizes that all loyalty relationships are emotional in character. However, he also says things which controvert the forgoing implications, and it is on examples of these that I shall focus during the following discussion. I shall begin by delineating a loyalty relationship as seen through a person's relationship to his or her country.

On Being a Loyal Citizen

The citizens of any particular country comprise that group of people who are recognized by the law of that country as being members of it. Citizenship, that is, signifies a legal status. Many citizens view their relationship to their countries as transcending the legal domain. That is to say, they see themselves as being somehow intimately linked to their country in the sense that their belonging to it is an important fact of their existence. The relationship between themselves and their country says something about who and what they are. Because they belong to that particular country, they hold certain beliefs, values, and attitudes characteristically held by people who belong to that country. It is because the people who belong to a particular country do share certain beliefs, values, and attitudes, that they are led also to do certain things in similar ways, that is, to take part in a specific form of life, in the life of a specific community.

Those citizens of a country who consciously participate in the life of its community while respecting the legal rights of other citizens not to do so, may nevertheless look upon those others as not doing what citizens of their country should be doing. Sometimes this can even lead to deep divisions within a country. To take an extreme example, a person may be a citizen of the U.S., but because she is a Nazi, many Americans would not wish to associate with her. While a U.S. citizen is not legally prohibited from joining the Nazi party and so cannot be legally punished for doing so, many would want to "punish" her by ostracizing her. They would want to do this because they believe that what the Nazis stand for is anathema to the American way of life. In other words, many Americans believe that while those fellow citizens who have joined the Nazi party have done nothing illegal, in joining the Nazi party they have been disloyal to the American way of life. It is one thing for an American to have a legal right to do something; it is another whether from the point of view of the American way of life, it is proper for her to exercise that right.

Those who consciously regard themselves as citizens who take part in the communal life of their country display their loyalty to it by being prepared to defend it even when it is not in their interest to do so. This fact implies, among other things, that those who attempt to make sense of the notion of a political community in terms of an extended business partnership, are attempting to do something which cannot be done. The "glue" that holds business partnerships together is that of shared instrumental values: the glue that holds a political community together is the loyalty to a shared way of life--a way of life so important to those who take part in it that they deem it worth defending even when the cost of doing so is very high.

The reason individuals are prepared to pay a high price to defend their political community is that, as I have already mentioned, they see themselves to be who and what they are precisely because they belong to the political community they do. Their relationship to it is a very intimate one in the sense that they see it as expressing their own conceptions of themselves. In being loyal to their communities they are in some sense also being loyal to themselves. Fletcher seems to be aware of this, for he talks about the individual identifying himself with the object of his loyalty. He points out that "[l]oyalty blurs the distinction between subject and object" [61]. However, elsewhere in his book he says things which imply that loyalty relationships can exist in which the self does not identify with the object of its loyalty. In fact he says that such loyalty relationships are a stage on the way to loyalty relationships in which the self does identify with the object of its loyalty. For example, he tells us that "[l]oyalty, by definition, generates interest, partiality, an identification with the object of one's loyalty" [8, emphasis mine]. Then again he distinguishes citizenship and patriotism by claiming that whereas citizenship requires only loyalty, "[p]atriotism, by contrast, is loyalty plus affection" [9, emphasis in the original]. Implied by these two quotations are the following: firstly, that loyalty relationships are possible for people even if they do not identify with the object of their loyalty; and, secondly, that patriotism is a result of what transpires when a citizen of a country, a person who is loyal to that country, begins to love it.

The type of loyalty that is expected of a citizen is described by Fletcher as minimal. This minimal loyalty Fletcher characterizes as "not join[ing] the enemy, typically the military enemy" [9]. However, the question is, Is this minimal loyalty really loyalty? It is true that from an external point of view, what Fletcher's loyal citizen does in not joining the enemy is similar to what the patriot, the man who identifies with his country, does. However, what is important with regard to the phenomenon of loyalty is not simply the external manifestations of the act but also the internal intentions of the actor. Being loyal to a country is not simply a matter of obeying its laws. A resident alien of country x, even though she views many of its policies as immoral towards country y, might not do anything to help country y even though she is in a position to do so and perhaps would even like to do so, because she is afraid of being caught and deported and this would cause her much distress--in the form, say, of being separated from her family and being sacked from a well-paying job. Now, such a person's actions, while being compatible with the actions of a loyal citizen, are not loyal actions. To act loyally towards a country entails doing the right thing by that country because the actor somehow regards it as hers. The patriot attempts to act loyally because, as a patriot, she can in a sense do nothing else. And if circumstances force her to choose something else other than act in a manner which she thinks is in the best interests of her country, she feels guilt and remorse, because as a conscious patriot she knows what she should do. Such situations arise, as Fletcher realizes, because people's loyalty to their country does come into conflict with their other loyalties.

One such conflict, which Flectcher refers to on a number of occasions [39, 154 and 172], but does not discuss, is Sartre's famous example(2) of the young man who, during World War II, asked Sartre to help him choose between leaving home to join the Free French forces of General de Gaulle and staying at home to give physical and psychological sustenance to his invalid mother. His brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940, and his father was a collaborator. As a French patriot he felt he should join de Gaulle. However, he knew that if he should do so his mother, who was completely dependent on him both physically and emotionally, would surely die almost immediately. The young man could not act loyally at one and the same time both to his country and to his mother. The choice was an agonizing one, for whatever he chose they young man would feel guilt or remorse or both precisely because he would have to act in a manner which either was not in the best interests of his country or was not in the best interests of his mother.

Sartre claims that in such situations an individual cannot but give an unsupported declaration that either one side or the other is to be preferred. He or she can only choose or in sartre's phrase invent his or her own moral principles.(3) There is nothing, he claims in anyone's own past experience that can guide him or her in the choice. This seems to me to be mistaken, for it is precisely in such situations that an individual's past comes into its own. In such situations, it is precisely an individual's past, or in Fletcher's phrase, an individual's "historical self," that influences her choice. In such decisions individuals reveal both to others and to their own conscious selves what they identify more with in that particular situation. In making such decisions, individuals often experience epiphany and reveal to their own conscious selves, that when the chips are down, no matter what their previous proclamations were, they identify more with x than with y in the sense that their attachment to x is stronger--at least in this situation--than it is to y.

Fletcher makes the claim [154] that in situations of conflicts of loyalties, where the conflict is between loyalty to something concrete, such as a member of one's family, or to a lover or a friend, and to something that appears more abstract, such as one's country or one's God, most people most of the time will choose the more concrete. This I believe is true because for most people attachment to their families, lovers, and friends is more real, because it is more immediate, than attachment to their country or to their God. Partly this is a result of the fact that most of us much of the time are not placed in situations where we have to choose between being loyal to our friends or members of our family on the one hand and being loyal to our country or our God on the other. For most of us, our conflicts of loyalty situations require that we choose only between the loyalties we owe to different individuals. However, this, I suggest is not the case today for people, for example, who live in what until recently we called Yugoslavia. I should imagine that in a place like that, or in Northern Ireland, questions of loyalty to country and to God are very real and do not seem so abstract as they do to many citizens of the United States. In places like Bosnia or Northern Ireland, I imagine that one's loyalty to country and God can influence even whom one would make friends with or take as a lover.

Loyalty, Identity, and Membership

The attachment and identification with one's own country may be an attachment to, and identification with, something more abstract than a human being. For the patriot, however, for the person who consciously is attached to and who consciously identifies with his country, that country is something very real. The patriot's love of country is not something he adds to his obligation to obey the laws that are entailed by his formal citizenship. Rather the loyalty of the patriot expresses who he is--he is a man who loves his country. Fletcher fails to see this, it seems to me, because he has confused the empirical question of "How do people become attached to and identify with the objects of their loyalty?" with the conceptual question of "What is the relationship between loyalty and the object to which it is displayed?"

Fletcher distinguishes between entering an organization and identifying with it [34]. On entering an organization, a person is obliged to comply with its formal rules. This is so whether entry is voluntary, as in the case of joining a political party or sports club, or involuntary, as in the case of being born into a certain family, nation, or religion. A person comes to identify deeply with an organization only after taking part in its activities. One's identification with organization grows out of taking part in its activities. Hence, Fletcher emphasizes the importance of taking part in ritualistic activities as a means of instilling loyalty. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, helps, he believes, instill a feeling of national identity in an immigrant country like the United States. "It obviously filled a need" he tells us "in a immigrant nation for a rite of national identity" [103]. The point of the Pledge of Allegiance, he goes on to explain, was "surely not to test the loyalty of the young, but rather by a process of vitalized expression of respect, to instill an emotional attachment to their country" [104]. Individuals, he argues, come to identify with an organization only when they become emotionally attached to it in the sense that their belonging to it is an important fact in their own opinion of who they are. Loyalties arise, Fletcher argues, "not just from the fact of entry but from the crystallization of the self in the second stage of membership" [34], that is to say, the stage of identification.

However, is the stage of entry distinguishable from the stage of identification to the extent the Fletcher seems to think it is? He writes as if on entry into an organization a person does not identify with it at all. This seems to me to be wrong, When I join an organization, be it a political party or a social club, it becomes something which I identify as my party and my club. True this identification is only minimal upon joining and becomes both deeper and stronger as time goes on. But surely a person would not be motivated to join a club or a party unless she wanted to identify with it even to the minimal extent that she wanted others to know her as someone who belonged to that club or that party. While the identification is not deep, it still exists. Hence people, on joining an organization, owe it the minimal loyalty that Fletcher talks about of at least not being disloyal to it. Even those institutions into which people are born demand loyalty from their members. I am expected to be loyal to my family, my nation, and my religion, even though I never asked to join them. The reason for this is that as long as I do not renounce my membership in them, they are mine. As long as I am willing to talk of them as mine, I indicate that I define myself, however minimally, in terms of them, and this identification with them indicates an attachment to it which implies a relationship of loyalty. A person may not love her country, may even feel ashamed of many of the policies pursued by its government, but to the extent that she still refers to it as hers, she indicates that she still has some identification with it. Similarly, a person may not be a practicing Jew, but to the extent that she still defines herself as one, she indicates that she still has some loyal attachments to Judaism. In other words to the extent that a person uses the first person possessive personal pronoun "my" to refer to something, she indicates that she identifies with it and so stands in a relationship which involves loyalty to it.

A person may have an obligation to something she is not attached to but she can in no sense be said to be required to act loyally towards it. For example, the visitor to a foreign country is obliged to obey its laws, but in no sense can she be required to act loyally towards it. Fletcher correctly perceives a link between partiality and loyalty. However, he incorrectly claims that "[l]oyalty...generates...partiality" [8]. What he should have said was that partiality generates loyalty.

Loyalty, Emotion, and Action

fletcher tells us that "many loyal actions seem to be motivated solely by an emotional almost instinctive attachment, untempered by moral reflection about the right thing to do" [31]. Again a few pages later he claims that "[l]oyalties generally lead people to suspend judgement 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]. There are a number of things that I find strange in these two quotations. On plausible reading of them, what they claim is patently false; on another reading they seem to contradict what I take to be one of the central theses of Fletcher's book, namely, that in relationships of loyalty people identify with the objects of their loyalty. As this identification affects their own conceptions of whom they are, I find it strange that Fletcher can claim that only "many" and not all loyal actions are "motivated solely by an emotional, almost instinctive attachment." In identifying with something one connects one's own self with it, and so one cannot but have an emotional attachment to it, which is undoubtedly reflected in how one acts towards it. The point is that the loyal person is not just the person who has certain kinds of beliefs about the object of his loyalty; he also has certain feelings about it. This component of feeling makes the concept of loyalty a flexible one. In that sense I would suggest that the concept loyal is not unlike the concept religious.

A person regards himself as a Catholic even though he has not been to confession for years. This is what he is, and he would feel upset if someone suggested otherwise. True, he does not practice his religion, but he is attached to it. The degree of commitment people have to the religion with which they identify is a personal matter. In the same sense I would suggest that the degree of commitment people have to the objects of their loyalty can vary. It varies to the extent of their identification with these objects: the stronger the identification, the stronger the feelings they will have about them, for a stronger identification means that they have put more of themselves into the objects.

Fletcher tells us that when people act loyally they act "untempered by moral reflection about the right thing to do" and that they generally "suspend judgment about right and wrong." What he is saying is clearly false, for people who want to act loyally often do think long and hard about just what is the right thing for them to do in the specific situation in which they find themselves placed. The point is that it is not clear how a patriot or a lover or a friend should act in order to express his patriotism or love or friendship in any specific context, so he usually must think prior to acting.

Perhaps, however, Fletcher does not literally mean that people do not think about what is the right thing to do, but that in thinking about it they fail to question their love for their country or their friend. However, if a person is a patriot, what should he try to do but to do right by his country? Similarly, a person who is in love with someone, or is friendly with someone, will try before acting to decide just what action of hers best expresses her love or her friendship in this concrete situation. After all, what is a patriot or a lover or a friend supposed to think about doing when she is contemplating action that affects her country, her lover, or her friend? Surely such a person can do nothing else but be what she is. If Fletcher is denying this, he is contradicting that claim of his which I quoted in the first paragraph of this essay: In acting loyally the self acts in harmony with its personal history. One recognizes who one is. Actions of standing by one's friends, family or nation reveal that identity. The self sees in its action precisely what history requires of it. [25] The point is that the notion of a disloyal patriot makes no sense, just as the notion of a disloyal lover or a disloyal friend makes no sense. In saying this I am not claiming that people who take themselves to be patriots do not do things which others take to be unpatriotic, or that lovers and friends do things that others, including those whom they love and are friendly with, claim are disloyal.(4) All I am saying is that in thinking about what to do, patriots, lovers and friends try to decide, because this is what they are, how best to express their patriotism, love, and friendship.

Fletcher's claim that the "loyal person defers to the judgment of the other, the person or group with whom one is bound in a relationship of loyalty," again seems on a literal interpretation to be saying something false or be claiming something which is inconsistent with his thesis that individuals identify with the objects towards which they exhibit loyalty. On a literal reading of the sentence, it follows that relationships of loyalty involving only two people can be only one-sided relationships. This is so because in such relationships if each person always deferred to the other, there would be nothing for each to defer to. I am not saying that there are no one-sided relationships in love or friendship. However, this kind of relationship is unhealthy precisely for that reason. Loyalty relationships are ideally reciprocal: A loves B and B loves A, or, more concisely, we say A and B are lovers (or friends). One-sided relationships are unstable.(5)

Then again to claim that the loyal person "defers" to the judgment of the person or group to whom he is bound in a relationship of loyalty, is, I suggest, only a partial description of what happens in such situations. More specifically, when in a loyalty relationship we do defer to the judgment of the other person or group we can also be said to defer to the relationship itself. When my friend and I both want to do something together but cannot agree on what that something will be, we sit down and try to come to an agreement. If in the end I decide to do what he originally wanted to do, and I do so because I see that my friend has set his heart on our doing it, even though I still believe it would be better to do what I wanted to do, in deferring to him I am showing how important our friendship is to me. That is to say I defer to him for the sake of our friendship. Take another example, this time from the political arena. In a democratic country the party with the majority in parliament forms the government. The other party or parties comprise the opposition, or, as they were originally referred to, the loyal opposition. The loyalty of the members of the opposition, like that of the members of the governing party, is first and foremost to their country. Although the members of the opposition believe that it would be in the country's best interest to be ruled by them, they still accept the laws passed by the parliament--even though they voted against them--as being valid laws of their country. They may even promise to repeal those laws at such time as they succeed in becoming the majority. However, until then, they, like all other citizens of their state, will obey the laws, for that is what loyal citizens of democratically ruled countries do. In short, in a loyalty relationship, when a person defers to someone else, he does not just do that; he also defers to the relationship itself.

In this essay I have concentrated on but one central theme from Fletcher's wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and very interesting book on loyalty--namely, his defense of the thesis that individuals identify with the objects to which they are loyal. My criticisms of Fletcher were not of the thesis itself, but of his failure to recognize some of the implications of it.


This essay was written while I was a visiting fellow of the Philosophy Department of the CUNY Graduate Center. I wish to thank John Kleinig for the constructive comments he made on an earlier version of this essay.

(1)G. FLETCHER, LOYALTY: AN ESSAY ON THE MORALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS (1992). Bracketed numbers in the text refer to pages in Fletcher's book.

(2)Sartre's example comes from his famous lecture Existentialism and Humanism. It has been reprinted in many places including in THE EXISTENTIAL TRADITION (N. Langulli ed.1971).

(3)Fletcher claims that Sartre claims, in Fletcher's words, "If he had to choose between patriotic commitment to the French Resistance and caring for his mother, he would choose his mother" [54]. I myself can find no such claim in the English version of Sartre's lecture. Fletcher, it is only fair to point out, refers in his notes to a version in the original French.

(4)I cannot emphasize too strongly how unclear the demands of loyalty relationships are. One man's loyalty is another man's treason, as the example of Clausewitz shows. After the capitualation of Prussia to Napoleon and the placing of the Prussian army under the command of the French High Command, Clausewitz (and a number of other officers) went over to the Russian side to continue the fight against Napoleon. The Prussian High Command branded him a traitor. He claimed that he was being loyal to the Prussia that had ceased to exist and whose existence he wished to revive by helping to defeat Napoleon.

(5)The classic discussion of this is Hegel's critique of The Master-Slave Relationship in his PHENOMENOLOGY OF MIND (J.B Baillie trans 1931).
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Author:Marantz, Haim
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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