in Politics, Psychology

Tristan recently wrote a post on loyalty, arguing that there are a lot of ‘loyal’ behaviours that are positive and socially important. That’s fair enough, but I still think loyalty is seriously over-valued as a virtue, and that it is always at risk of becoming unethical. Loyalty blends easily into nepotism, corruption, cover-ups, and conspiracies.

The kind of people who really need die-hard supporters are those whose private actions would not be supported by many members of the population at large or by the authorities in power. Occasionally, that is not a sign that those behaviours are unethical. For example, the French resistance during WWII was undertaken by a small part of the total population. In situations where you are waging a noble fight under conditions of oppression, loyalty may be both admirable and necessary.

More often, though, activities that need to be kept secret are dubious or damaging. Loyal little bands can get ahead together largely because they conspire to flatter one another, cover up their mistakes, and general put the collective interests of their inner circle ahead of the interests of humanity as a whole. Politicians who favour loyalty over competence within their staff seem to end up making the most egregious and dramatic mistakes.

People need die-hard supporters when they lack the respect of people who disagree with them. Perhaps that is the definition of being a political moderate: having the respect of intelligent people who hold very different views.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm

I agree with your criticisms of loyalty. If I were to write my post again, I would include the points you make in the 3rd and 4th paragraphs here.

The only thing I would add, is to the 4th paragraph – the presumption that one can maintain power without die-hard supporters takes for granted the stability of the political situation. In situations where there are no moderates, or where the moderates are the minority, it can be impossible for a leader to maintain any sort of stability without die-hard supporters.

Keep in mind, that even every democratic leader employs many die-hard supporters, in the form of bodyguards, police, and army. In places where the state is weaker, it is normal that these institutions must be replicated at the party level.

oleh September 13, 2011 at 12:29 am

It seems important when evaluating the value of loyalty to consider whether one is loyal to something positive or negative. For example, I would see the loyalty of gangmembers to an organized crime gang as negative; the loyalty of a parent to a child as positive.

Tristan September 13, 2011 at 11:47 am


While I think you are right for many circumstances, I think we can also talk about circumstances where there is a significant amount of uncertainty as to whether the thing you are loyal to is good or not. And this is kind of where loyalty comes into play – going along with someone doing something good requires no loyalty, I can go long with it completely as a personal judgement. But when I can’t know the entire situation, when I need to accept someone else’s judgement without completely understanding their reasons behind it – that’s where loyalty comes into play.

The problem with examples like “organized crime gang”, or “loyal to children” is that the work of morally appraising the situation is done in the description of the situation. For instance, what one person might call an organized crime gang, another person might call a revolutionary group fighting against occupation. What if the French Resistance robbed Nazi banks – are they an organized crime gang? This language is always morally loaded, so we can’t expect it to do the work of telling us when to be loyal.

Similarly, “loyal to children” does the moral work in advance, but in a different way – what does it mean to be loyal to one’s children? What if there is a conflict between loyalty to state law and loyalty to one’s children?

I think a good example of this kind of contradiction has to do with spousal loyalty. In my understanding, in Canada you can not be held in contempt of court for failing to testify against your spouse. I’ve always interpreted this to mean that the state effectively recognizes that your loyalty to your spouse is allowed to override loyalty to the state.

oleh September 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Good points Tristan. Essentially loyalty (like beauty) is in the eyes of the beholder. I do appreciate you raising the subject of loyalty in your blog. Loyalty seems to be an undervalued characteristic.

I read a couple of war novels recently Matterhorn and The Naked and the Dead. A basic point seemed to be that although soldiers fight under and pledge loyalty to their flag, they are more likely to die for the fellow soldiers in their unit. That seems to be the type of loyalty that can arise in organized crime gangs.

So is loyalty stronger in general to a person or to an idea?

Milan September 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Perhaps loyalty becomes dangerous when we continue to act upon it, but have forgotten the reasons why we were loyal to a person or institution to begin with.

Think of the crew on Captain Ahab’s ship. While he was still a reasonable commander, their loyalty had a defensible basis. Later, by remaining loyal despite his evident madness, the crew demonstrated the dangerous tendency of human beings to carry their allegiances too far.

Particularly given how the enthusiasm of a group can sweep people along – for instance, to loot or riot – it seems sensible to be especially questioning of one’s loyalties when everyone around you seems to be endorsing energetic action of one specific kind. It bears remembering that our instincts can be right about how to behave, even in situations where they clash dramatically with the example of those around us.

Tristan October 6, 2011 at 2:41 am

“Later, by remaining loyal despite his evident madness, the crew demonstrated the dangerous tendency of human beings to carry their allegiances too far.”

Loyalty is an answer to the problem, “how do you know when your superiors are acting in your best interests?”. However, it’s not a very sophisticated answer, because all it does is say “always” or “of course” or “yours is not to reason why…” whenever you ask it. But it is nevertheless an answer.

I agree that it is easy from a 3rd person perspective it is easy to decide when Ahab’s crew should have stopped being loyal to him. But, perhaps if they were free-minded, or dis-loyal enough to disobey him when he went mad, they would have been disloyal when he was not mad.

Preserving the loyalty of a crew during the time when you need them to be loyal may require changing them/making them believe things such that they will be loyal to you even when they should not be. But this is not the situation you plan for as a commander.

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