This post examines the virtue of loyalty. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is loyalty?

These are two senses of loyalty:

  • loyalty as reciprocity — Α is loyal to Β in this way because either Α has reason to feel gratitude to Β for some previously-granted favor, or expects to be able to get such a favor from Β at some time in the future. “You pulled the thorn from my paw, and now I shall certainly come to your aid.”
  • loyalty as partiality — Α is loyal to Β in this way by reliably making the promotion and defense of Β’s interests a priority to Α when that would not be the case absent the loyalty. “I would never rat out a fellow member of the Water Buffalo lodge.”

Loyalty may suggest both “I’ll be in your corner” (unlike other non-loyal people), and “I’ll be in your corner” (not in your adversary’s), but sometimes one more than the other.

Phrases like that one that describe loyalty commonly include descriptions of body language and relative positions of bodies: “I won’t turn my back on you,” “Now I know where you stand,” “I’ve got your back,” “He stayed by her side through it all.”

Issues of loyalty provide the story arc of many a popular classic — for example movies like Casablanca, Yojimbo / A Fistful of Dollars, or the Star Wars films (will Annakin go over to the dark side? will Han abandon his comrades in their hour of need?). Betrayal and false loyalty define many a classic villain (e.g. Macbeth). Loyalties that make incompatible demands have been a staple of tragedy at least since Sophocles and the Mahabharata. We seem to take particular interest in stories that involve shifts in loyalty, hidden loyalties being uncovered, loyalties being put to the test, the disloyal getting their comeuppance, and that sort of thing. This suggests that careful attention to the loyalties of those around us may have been an important skill to have in the history of our species.

The words “faithfulness” and “fidelity” are sometimes used more-or-less synonymously with loyalty (especially in the context of marriage vows). “Fealty” and “allegiance” cover something similar in the context of loyalty expressed upwards in hierarchies.

“Patriotism” sometimes gets used as a synonym for the loyalty a person feels toward their nation. “Filial piety” includes a specific variety of loyalty practiced towards ones parents. “Solidarity” is a sort of implied loyalty that similarly-situated people are supposed to feel toward one another. “Teamwork” includes a sense of loyalty to the team itself and its goals.

Loyalty often gets discussed in combination with nearby-virtues like commitment, dependability/reliability, and duty. When people are unswervingly loyal to principles, ideas, and ideals, this can be a reasoning failure of unwise intellectual rigidity; but sometimes “loyalty” is used metaphorically in this context to describe devotion, consistency, integrity, and other such virtues.

Loyalty is important to the virtue of friendship (“The ground for the steadfastness and constancy for which we are searching in friendship is faithfulness.” ―Cicero). A loyal friend is sometimes described as a “true” friend: one who has been tried and has passed the test.

In a professional context, when you agree to promote your client’s or customer’s interests as part of the contract or as part of the ethical obligation of the job, this sort of loyalty is sometimes called “fiduciary responsibility.”

Sometimes loyalty is used informally to describe a mere preference or habit (“a loyal Starbucks customer”). Other times we express a sort of loyalty to tradition or to our ancestors (“just like my grandparents did, and their grandparents before them” or “as the founding fathers would have wanted”).

Loyalty can conflict with other virtues — most obviously virtues like impartiality, objectivity, and justice, but really any virtue against which loyalty might plead the cause of vice. For this reason, some philosophers have given loyalty the stink-eye, seeing it as more of a temptation than a virtue.

What does loyalty commit you to?

What exactly loyalty demands of us is usually pretty vaguely defined. What loyalty consists of is often conveyed through anecdotes and exemplars (sometimes of the disloyal) rather than through rules.

This can make it seem like loyalty is less a compelling commitment and more of a post-hoc excuse for what a person wanted to do for other reasons. How do you choose between “I am loyal to you, so I must” and “I am loyal to you, but I won’t”? Loyalty may induce you to incur opportunity costs: you come to the assistance of whatever you are loyal to at the cost of working on your own pursuits. This gets trickier when loyalty encourages you to do things you would otherwise find actually un-virtuous or fully vicious.

People and institutions that rely for their strength on the loyalty that people have toward them do what they can to strengthen that loyalty. They may try to eliminate rival loyalties by demanding that you make loyalty to them paramount: “you cannot serve both X and Y,” “you’re either with us or against us.” They may, as the United States does with its schoolchildren, ask you to pledge your allegiance over and over again.

A loyalty-dependent institution like this can broadcast its strength by demonstrating the extremes its fanatics are willing to go to to show their loyalty. For this reason, they may ask people to signal their loyalty in various ways. Oaths, pledges, vows, insignia, binding rituals, and things of that nature are legible ways to signal loyalty. But because they are easily-accomplished they may not be very effective gauges. More expensive signals are more reliable for this purpose, and so sometimes people are called upon to prove their loyalty by things that may seem absurd to outside observers: believe the unbelievable, defend the indefensible, assert the incredible, humiliate yourself, take the blame for something you didn’t do. You can best prove your loyalty by doing something that is costly, that goes against your own interests, and that otherwise violates your moral code: something that you would obviously never do except for your loyalty. (And once you have done so, even though such abusiveness suggests that maybe your loyalty is misplaced, the sunk-cost fallacy may help cement your loyalty further.)

People may exploit the vagueness of what loyalty commits you to, by asking you to be loyal in a way that explicitly commits you to X, but then asserting at some later time that you implicitly committed yourself to Y & Z as well. Open-ended or unspecified commitments are especially tricky. “You said you’d be there if I needed you, and now I need you to help me hide this body.”

Because of this potential for abuse and for conflicts with other virtues, loyalty is a virtue that requires strong bodyguards in the form of wisdom, discernment, foresight, vigilance, and caution. If you are going to be fiercely loyal, you should take special care in deciding what to be loyal to. If you ask favors of the Godfather, expect to hear “Someday I will call upon you to do a service for me” in return.

Loyalty in tension with justice

Loyalty usually implies partiality, which is a problem if you value loyalty but also value impartiality and objectivity. For this reason, we suspect the judgement of people who have expressed (or suspected) loyalties that might induce them to put their thumbs on the scale.

People and institutions with more power, authority, and resources can use those things to extort, command, or purchase more loyalty, which they can then trade in for more power, authority, and resources. This can create a dynamic in which these things flow to where they are already concentrated, in a way that can seem unjust. However, places where lots of power, authority, and resources come together are notoriously dens of intrigue and back-stabbing, so maybe this dynamic is ultimately unstable.

Part of what is exceptional about Christianity is its emphasis on solidarity with the downtrodden as a way of demonstrating loyalty to Jesus — flipping that dynamic of demonstrating your loyalty through acts that benefit those who already have more than their share: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

When you put energy and resources into displaying loyalty to (for example) a football team, those are resources that could be spent instead on those who have more genuine need. So maybe there’s an effective-altruism argument for reducing the influence of such loyalty as well.

Although loyalty can be in tension with justice, it can also be a way of honoring justice. If loyalty is owed, then disloyalty is the unjust failure to honor a debt. The disloyal are sometimes described as being unjust in their betrayals. This is especially true when loyalty is a sort of reciprocity (you came through for me in a pinch, so now you can count on me).

Loyalty as a coordination mechanism

If coordinated group effort is important to the success of some endeavor, loyalty (to the cause or to the institution or to the leader) is one mechanism for helping to ensure that individual efforts are appropriately focused on the common task. “Teamwork” is a variety of loyalty in which the members of the team value the goals of the team as a whole over their own personal goals, and behave accordingly.

“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” ―Benjamin Franklin, to his fellow-revolutionaries, on the signing of the Declaration of Independence (possibly apocryphal)

The loyalty of patriotism is sometimes defended from charges that it is irrationally partial by people who say that strong nations are good, and loyalty is necessary to making a nation strong, so you should not try to judge whether your nation is worthy of your loyalty but you should be loyal to it in order to benefit your nation and increase its worth.

Loyalty is a “force multiplier”. One legend holds that during negotiations with the enemy on the brink of battle, the leader of the Hashashin abruptly ordered one of his soldiers to leap from the window of the room to his death. The soldier complied without hesitation and without a word. The representative of the enemy of the Hashashin realized from this how devoted and formidable an enemy he was facing, and so war was averted.

To share in the benefits that come with coordinated group action, it can be useful for individuals to signal that they are “team players” with robust senses of loyalty. I wonder if the subconscious reason people often ostentatiously display loyalties to things like sports teams, brands, and so forth, is that these things signal that they are capable of forming strong loyalties, and in this way they encourage other people to join with them in mutually-beneficial alliances.

In prisoners-dilemma-type games, a reputation for loyalty can help game players optimize their play.

Loyalty as a way of forming identity

Loyalty is a component of belonging, which people tend to value. “I am an American” may describe a mere accident of birth; “I am a loyal American” seems to bind me together with other Americans in a joint project. People often define themselves in part by the loyalties they have adopted. If you think of yourself as a Freemason, for example, or a Marine (semper fi!), or a husband or wife, you have an identity that comes necessarily packaged with certain expectations of loyalty.

Demonstrations of loyalty, declarations of loyalty, symbols and tests of loyalty, and the like, are ways of policing in-group/out-group boundaries.

In our eagerness to belong, people sometimes adopt loyalties (or pantomime as though they have) to ephemeral and arbitrary things, and for the most tissue-thin reasons. Once you start, for example, harmlessly rooting for the home team or being true to your school, it can be hard to remember that your home team or school isn’t really objectively better or more noble or more worthy. The teacher who as an experiment divided her class up by eye color and encouraged eye-color-solidarity among them was astonished to see “what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”

Whether or not you can keep a critical, objective head about you while remaining loyal to a person, team, or cause, is a tough nut to crack. “Blind” or “unthinking loyalty” is usually looked down on, there is an honorable place for the “loyal opposition,” and sometimes your most loyal friends are the ones who aren’t afraid to tell you what you didn’t want to hear.

Loyalty as extended reciprocity

When loyalty has been earned (e.g. through services rendered), it is sometimes seen as a form of gratitude. Expressions of loyalty can be acknowledgments of indebtedness, or that the original favor has not been forgotten.

Loyalty is sometimes seen as a potential resource that can be “cashed in” in a more concrete way at some future time. You might offer such loyalty in exchange for someone’s help if you don’t have a better way to incentivize them. If you cultivate a reputation for steadfast loyalty, the loyalty you offer at such times will have a higher value and you presumably can obtain more for it.

Sometimes, institutions will use this sort of mechanism as a mutual-insurance policy. For example, I understand that Masons typically take an oath to come to the aid of any other Mason in distress.

Conclusion

In what has become an alarming pattern with these virtue explorations, I picked up “loyalty” thinking that it seemed simple enough and that I had a pretty good handle on what it meant, but then the more I investigated the more complex it revealed itself to be.

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I like your posts on virtue, especially when they explore difficult ones like loyalty. The point that felt the most right was the one on being loyal to friends by telling them what they need but don't want to hear.

In what has become an alarming pattern with these virtue explorations, I picked up “loyalty” thinking that it seemed simple enough and that I had a pretty good handle on what it meant, but then the more I investigated the more complex it revealed itself to be.

It's funny, I definitely expect virtues to be incredibly complex. For me, the simple enough ethics approach is deontologist, and going either virtue-ethics or consequentialist requires a big effort to see what is right and wrong.

A nice short story about loyalty is Friends in San Rosario by O. Henry.