Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Philosophy of Loyalty

. Thursday, January 1, 2009

Contrary to popular assumption, "loyalty" is not a dead virtue. It may have evolved from the ancient feudal notion of fealty and homage towards kings, to the now well-established idea of a "loyal opposition", but it is still - and will always be - our most important virtue.

HOLINESS, THAT HIGHEST OF HIGH TEMPLE VIRTUES, is nothing without loyalty. If the very definition of loyalty is faithfulness and devotion to a cause or being, then what is holiness or sanctity if not loyalty to God, after all?

Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.Truth is a high temple virtue too, so is honour. But truth only triumphs inasmuch as one is loyal to it; honour, inasmuch as one is loyal to the code. Loyalty is the cardinal virtue because it makes the other virtues possible. It is virtue enabling.

For example, what is love without fidelity? What is hope without faith? What is charity without fealty or obligation? What is respectfulness without deferance? What is duty or service without allegiance? What is perseverance if not faithfulness and devotion to the end? And what is responsibility if not loyalty to our families, our careers and our communities? Personal responsibility. Corporate responsibility. Civic responsibility. Duty and commitment. It all comes down to loyalty.

One could go on and on about the interconnectedness of loyalty with virtue. Is justice not just adherence to a common belief in fairness, is morality not just cultural allegiance to a virtuous set of principles, ethics and values? As the American philosopher Josiah Royce postulated in his Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), "Loyalty is the fulfillment of the whole moral law. You can truthfully centre your entire moral world about a rational conception to loyalty. Justice, charity, industry, wisdom, spirituality, are all definable in terms of enlightened loyalty." He called his grand ethical theory, "loyalty to loyalty", defending the unifying virtue as the supreme moral good.

Once you appreciate that loyalty is the greatest human virtue, you understand that betrayal is the greatest human vice. The old evils of blasphemy, venality, cowardice, avarice, gluttony and sloth were all interpreted as betrayals of one form or another. Self-treachery can lead to any number of personal follies, since betrayal can empower all matter of sins. In Shakespeare's own immortal words, that Colossus of English literature, "self-love my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting". Shakespeare understood that there is nothing beneath betrayal in the whole catalogue of sin.

And yet loyalty has often been misconstrued as a vice, and disloyalty sometimes misconstrued as a virtue. The "virtue of disloyalty" as put forward by Mark Twain and Grahame Green argued against giving in to the demands of loyalty in order to best protect the individual from those who exploit it, fearing it could potentially be used as a means to pursue unethical conduct on a grand scale. And indeed who could deny the idea has considerable resonance after bearing witness to history's murderous crimes under the fanatically loyal regimes of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia?

But as it is with any other virtue, loyalty does not ask for us to suspend our moral judgements. Conscientiousness and sincerity may be directed to unworthy objects, but conscientiousness and sincerity do not for that reason fail as virtues. Does the corruption of courage, by which we mean foolhardiness, prove then that courage is not a virtue? Obviously there is a point at which virtue becomes not a virtue at all, for confidence can be corrupted into vanity, generosity into extravagance and loyalty into complaisance and servility. The trust that tends to accompany loyalty need not encompass gullibility and credulity.

It was Aristotle who described every virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a "golden mean" sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. Virtuous loyalty then is just the golden mean between fanatical disloyalty and fanatical loyalty. The mean between treachery and subserviance.

Society may be somewhat off its golden mean these days (we no longer worship virtue), because the needs of liberty have (over)entrenched the practice of limiting loyalty. The ancient fealty towards kings has progressed into the well-established idea of a "loyal opposition", since we have come to Whiggishly accept that for loyalty to be virtuous there must be openness to corrective criticism on the part of both the subject and object of loyalty. The "corrective" qualification is important, for not any opposition is permissible. A loyal opponent is not just an opponent, but one who remains loyal, and that entails the opposition to stay within bounds that are compatible with the well-being or best interests of the object of loyalty.

Predominantly speaking, a loyal opposition will not advocate rebellion or revolution or even radical change, for the latter would endanger the object of loyalty and perhaps replace it with an undesirable alternative. Perhaps it is the commitment to opposition within the prevailing structures that has led some radical critics of loyalty to see it negatively as a conservative virtue, or not to view it as a virtue at all. It is conservative because it involves a commitment to securing or preserving the interests of its object, an object that has come to be valued for its own sake.

Nevertheless, the existence of a loyal opposition does not preclude the possibility that a more radical opposition might and indeed should subsequently be mounted. If the loyal opposition proves incapable of "reforming" the object of loyalty, the exit option might be taken. In such cases it could be argued that the object of loyalty was no longer worthy of its claim to it. It is only if we mistakenly or misguidedly think of loyalty as making an absolute claim on us that a derogatory charge of conservatism (for those who see conservatism as derogatory) against a loyal opposition will have any traction.

We can limit loyalty but we cannot eliminate it altogether, nor should such a thing ever be desired, for that path leads to anarchy and destruction. Suffice it to say that no person, no profession, no culture and no country can survive long without it. Loyalty is the glue of society, the gospel of reason and the creed of nations. As part of the natural order, loyalty is the cardinal virtue and the whole cornerstone of Tory philosophy. It is absolutely critical to our existence.

It goes without saying that The Monarchist holds it in the highest possible regard.


Sir Walter Scott said...

Resplendent. Such eloquence in the service of much-needed truth that it demands a leather binding, and not the mere trappings of the web. Very good.

Gladstone said...

A most excellent article, Sir Beaverbrook, as always.

Aeneas the Younger said...

Loyalty is the cardinal principle of my life. As such I cannot officially support a political party anymore. They are all rotten.

I would love to found a Monarchist Party in the Dominion. Of course, Loyalty should not be a partisan principle, but I am afraid it is not as universal as it once was. Sad. And Misguided.

Beaverbrook said...

Happy new year, gents.

Gladstone's foray on faith caused me to expound on my understanding of loyalty, which to my surprise was not considered one of the four classic Western virtues (temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice) as enumerated by the ancient Greeks, nor is it considered one of the seven heavenly virtues in Christian tradition.

In fact, the only scholar in line with my thinking turned out to be Josiah Royce. For some reason most seem to view loyalty as a problematic virtue, in spite of its obvious indispensability to any civilised society

David Byers said...

Loyalty comes, or should come, because the system is of benefit to the whole of a nation. If something comes along that serves the nation better, than logic would tell one that one’s loyalty should switch to that. This is because we have a duty to each other.

As I have always said – “governments exist to serve people – people don’t exist to serve governments”

Tom said...

A very interesting article.

Tom said...

In response to what you said Mr Byers, I would say that the loyalty to government comes from a loyalty to the country.

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