What is Loyalty?

Merriam-Webster online describes the loyalty as “the quality or state or an instance of being loyal.”  Following the link to ‘loyal’, we come to this:

“1: unswerving in allegiance: as

  • (a) faithful in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign or government.
  • (b) faithful to a private person to whom fidelity is due.
  • (c) faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution or product.”

In Dante’s Inferno, in the lowest circle of Hell reside those guilty of treason and betrayal.  Why?  What is it about loyalty that puts it above other virtues?  Why do we value it more?

“Loyalty is the idea that we are who we say we are and we will do what we say we will do. It is the hope that the integrity with which we initially encountered someone will endure indefinitely. It’s also what keeps us unified. We live out our lives as part of agreed upon norms that allow us to operate from day to day. We need to know who we can count on. We all understand that ideally, friends will have your back, lovers will remain true, and businesses will not cheat you out of your money. When someone is disloyal, they break from these expectations and weaken the trust that holds us together.” (Brett & Kate McKay, 10/25/09)

Loyalty is sometimes easier to describe with examples rather than definitions like the ones listed above.  We see it in the stories of the soldier who risks gunfire to bring a wounded comrade to safety; in the stories of a religious martyr who chooses death over betrayal of faith.

Like all virtues, loyalty has its proper manifestation and its false counterpart.  There is a line, however blurry or difficult to see, where loyalty becomes blind obedience.  When loyalty is demanded by regimes under people like Hitler, Stalin or Mao, it becomes poisoned and perverted.  True loyalty cannot be demanded.  It can only be chosen, and with it comes a great and honorable power.

In Josiah Royce’s The Philosophy of Loyalty, loyalty is defined as the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”

“Willing” – born of your choice; your free will.

“Practical and thoroughgoing devotion” – It’s all well and good if you’re well intentioned, but you need to DO something to support that claim.

“To a cause” – the idea of friendship, brotherhood, family, love, fidelity.  To the Gospel.  To whatever values you hold dear.  You can be loyal to people or organizations, but they can change.  If a close friend starts making bad choices, would you go along out of blind loyalty, or would you do something about it and try to save them?

“Whenever, I say, such a cause so arouses your interest that it appears to you worthy to be served with all your might, with all your soul, with all your strength, then this cause awakens in you the spirit of loyalty. If you act out this spirit, you become, in fact, loyal.” -Josiah Royce

Put simply, “…the causes which arouse your loyalty must be ones that fascinate and possess you, ones that reverberate in your being and invigorate your spirit. The causes to which you choose to be loyal need not be dictated to you by your position or by tradition and can be entirely of your own creation. Choose causes which mirror your will and align with your core values and ideals, causes that so engross and engage both your heart and mind that you feel willing to make whatever sacrifices will be necessary to remain loyal and true.

…We are always on the hunt for a better deal, for an upgrade. Thus modern loyalty is a pale version of its ancient form. Sure we’re loyal……until something better comes along. We’re loyal…until we are given an excuse to bail. Of course this is not true loyalty at all. A loyal man commits to something with the idea that he is casting his lot with that cause in perpetuity.” (Brett & Kate McKay, 10/25/09)

“Loyalty for the loyal man is not only a good, but for him chief amongst all the moral goods of his life, because it furnishes to him a personal solution of the hardest of human practical problems, the problem: “For what do I live? Why am I here? For what am I good? Why am I needed?” – Josiah Royce

What are some benefits of loyalty?

Loyalty breeds satisfaction and happiness.  “Studies have shown that being able back out of our decisions makes us less happy than making “irreversible” decisions. For example, in one study students were told that they could pick one fine art print to take home with them. One group was told that the decision was final. The other group was told that they could return and exchange the print later if they so desired. While almost everyone in the second group said they were happy to have the option to return their print, almost none did. However, the second group ended up far less satisfied with their choice than the group that was not allowed to make exchanges. Why? Because with the option to reverse their decision always in the back of their minds, they could not move forward and put in the important psychological work to accept and enjoy their decision.

Thus, while it may seem risky to commit our loyalty to something for the long haul, it can be quite psychologically rewarding. In trading quantity for quality, you will come to know the rich satisfactions available only to those who are willing to go in-depth with something, sticking with it through thick and thin.” (AoM)

Loyalty lessens the amount of anxiety in your life.  “In a previous article, we talked about the way in which having too many choices can paralyze us into unhappiness and inaction. One of the ways to mitigate this effect is to purposely limit our choices. There are some choices in life we can make once and never have to make again. Once you know where you stand in life, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you are faced with certain choices.” (AoM)

Loyalty breeds loyalty.  Loyalty is contagious. As we lives of loyalty we encourage other men to do likewise. As Royce argues, we should act “as to further the general confidence of man in man.” (AoM) **”Living by example” comes to mind very strongly for me when I think of loyalty breeding loyalty.**

Loyal men can change the world.  “When good men bail out of organizations that they feel have gotten off-track, it simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are no shortage of problems with everything from family to politics, but if loyal men don’t stick around and work from within to be a force of positive change, these institutions will never improve. Loyal men transform causes from the inside out.” (AoM)

I think that many people misunderstand what loyalty really is.  It’s not (or at least, it shouldn’t be) dependent on a give-and-take mindset.  It’s not something that should be cast aside when things aren’t going the way you imagined, or if you’re not getting the rewards or recognition or things you thought you would get.

“You should strive to stay loyal until all the work you can do for your cause is finished, which may not come until the end of your life. Of course in between now and then your cause may change , and you be tempted to be bail and say, “I’m not going to let this cause tell me what to do!” But remember, you chose the cause. You proposed, you got baptized, you joined the army. In so choosing, you also chose to accept whatever crap would later come down the line. You knew the risks in pledging your loyalty, and you willing accepted those risks. What good is a loyalty that swells in the midst of pomp and ceremony only to shrink in the trenches?” (AoM)

What good is loyalty if you don’t keep your promise; if you don’t hold true to your cause?  Are we ever justified in being disloyal?

* * * * *

As a final interjection, my primary thought on this subject is loyalty in marriage and relationships.  I think that’s where people first go to for examples of loyalty.  And in today’s society, where divorce and infidelity are more common than they should be, I think that is where we need to focus our efforts on changing and improving how loyalty is seen and valued.


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