A Bloggy Thought

Some of the discussion around political candidates and officials these days has centered around issues of loyalty.  What actions can be expected of supporters or subordinates if they are loyal?  What if loyalty is the sole criterion of appointing someone to a position?  This introduction of the discourse of loyalty into recent controversies has led me to recall a few salient thoughts from Josiah Royce.

Royce was a Californian who taught at Harvard from 1871 to 1916.  He sought to build an entire ethical theory around the virtue of loyalty.  I do not think that broad claim can be sustained, but he gave a normative definition of loyalty as essentially a willing, practical, loving, thorough-going commitment of a person to a cause.  I just want to focus on one aspect of this.  When Royce considers the process of reflection that develops when one contemplates which of different courses of action will be genuinely loyal, he points out that this virtue itself requires integrity.   To act without intelligence, without following one’s own best judgment, but especially in any way which risks distorting the truth, are ultimately each detrimental to the cause which one wishes to support.  The parent who lies to a child is at risk of never regaining a loyal trust.  The explanation that the reason one acted unfairly was because of a slavish devotion to a friend, only reveals a self-serving inability to challenge that friend to be his or her best self.  Pushing this submission of one’s power of will to unjustly serve the interests of one’s friend can often be seen to anticipate the descriptions someone like Sartre would assign to “Bad Faith.”  Genuine loyalty, practical and consistent, never serves merely as an excuse.  The whole point of seeing loyal actions as distinct from behavior forced by an external compulsion would be lost if this would work.  Test it out.  Some authority might force conformity of behavior from you, but cannot force your feeling and commitment of loyalty.

Perhaps some would think this is building too much external moral content into the direct experience of the virtue.   But it seems to me that “blind” loyalty is not loyalty at all.