“Dangerous Loyalties”

I wrote this back in mid-August, around the time when our reading group was reading Tessman’s Burdened Virtues. I was almost certain I’d posted it back then, but I can’t find it anywhere on the site, so at the risk of double-posting it, I figured I’d post it now.

Chapter 6 of Lisa Tessman’s Burdened Virtues, “Dangerous Loyalties,” discusses the dangers of the supposed virtue of loyalty. Loyalty as Tessman conceives of it is a qualified but unconditional attachment to a group, usually some species of “the oppressed,” along with a desire to promote that group’s ends and interests. The virtue’s demands are qualified in the sense that they apply within certain limits–to some groups rather than others, and permitting some degree of internal criticism rather than none. But they’re unconditional in the sense that within those limits, a loyal person’s allegiance to the group cannot be relinquished on pain of violating the demands of loyalty, and thereby inviting the charges of betrayal and treason.

Given this, one is obliged to stifle criticisms that might lead to the subversion or dissolution of the group itself. One is likewise obliged to put up with the inconveniences and sacrifices of association with the group through its rough patches, despite its special demands, and even despite some of its notable defects and vices. Politically speaking, such groups serve worthy ends, and their members, particularly their privileged members, are obliged to uphold some fairly arduous burdens in serving those ends. In this sense, patriotism and nationalism demand loyalty, as do identities of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and gender expression. We’re obliged to do things on behalf of our nation or our group that drag us out of the otherwise comfortable and morally self-assured lives we might otherwise lead. To be loyal to these groups is, with relevant qualifications, a virtue. To fail in one’s loyalty is to betray one’s group, and so to express the vice of treason.

Much of Tessman’s discussion in this chapter consists of meditations (and some inconclusive hand-wringing) on the difficulties of successfully negotiating the demands of loyalty so construed. Loyalty is, as Alasdair MacIntyre aptly puts it, “a permanent source of moral danger.”* It demands that the imperatives of group identity be taken essentially as fixed, and those of individual autonomy and cognitive independence be tailored to fit them. There are, Tessman admits, cases in which these imperatives of loyalty ought to be abandoned, so that disloyalty is to be preferred to loyalty when the costs of loyalty are too high. Disloyalty is not in these cases to be regarded as a virtue, but as a regrettable necessity. Where it becomes necessary, loyalty ceases to have application, as apparently, does virtue itself.

Given her premises, Tessman’s concerns are perfectly understandable, but I wonder about the framing of the issue as such. Why conceive of loyalty primarily as a matter of unconditional (or nearly-unconditional) loyalty to groups, tailoring one’s principles to the demands of loyalty so conceived?

I’m not a Randian Objectivist, but it seems to me that the Objectivist conception of integrity is preferable to Tessman’s conception of loyalty. Integrity, on the Randian view, is the virtue of maximally counterfactually stable adherence to the moral and epistemic norms one endorses under conditions of maximal rationality. As Leonard Peikoff puts it, integrity is “loyalty to rational principles” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 259, and generally, pp. 259-67). On this view, the primary object of loyalty is one’s own commitment to principles, not to people, whether individually or in groups. Loyalty to people becomes an expression of–hence derivative of–loyalty to principles: we’re loyal to, say, groups (and choose groups as objects of loyalty) insofar as they express our principles; otherwise not.

Loyalty, then, has a two-tiered structure. What we might call first-order loyalty, meaning loyalty to principles, is an all-or-nothing affair: for any principle P, one either affirms it or not. If one affirms the principle in question, one is unconditionally loyal to it, subject to veto only by the higher-order principles that regulate it. If one’s highest level allegiance is to the truth of one’s principles, lower level principles may well be abandoned insofar as they fail the test of truth. But supposing that they pass that test (and pass any other relevant tests), one will affirm them unconditionally: to affirm a principle P is to resolve to respect and act on it in every case where it applies, and in any case where no countervailing consideration nullifies its application. This impersonal conception of loyalty purchases the sort of unconditionality that Tessman seems to want through loyalty to groups.

But on the view I’ve just described, persons are never owed quite that sort of loyalty, whether as individuals or as groups. That brings us to second-order loyalty, loyalty to persons. Loyalty to persons is a function of loyalty to principles: one is loyal to persons insofar as that loyalty expresses one’s own principles.

This is bound to be a complicated affair, and often, a matter of degree. Real-life people will only tend to express or adhere to one’s preferred principles in a highly imperfect way. Their agreement will be approximate, their backsliding, predictable. Misunderstandings will inevitably arise. Practical necessities will intrude and distort otherwise pristine moral arrangements. Politics will often require forging alliances with people whose adherence to one’s own principles may be attenuated to the point of seeming evanescent or merely nominal.  Tolerance will have to be extended to people engaged in what seem like lapses from this or that “crucial” principle. So messy compromises will have to be made, some very messy. The Aristotelian desire to “find the mean” will often seem like the Machiavellian desire to make a deal with the Devil.

Of course, there are lapses and there are lapses. Each conscientious moral agent will have to identify a moral threshold for continued loyalty to a group–principles such that their violation nullifies the imperative of loyalty to the group–and have a Plan B for exit if that threshold is crossed a certain way. In short, person-based loyalty will end up being a far more contingent affair than loyalty to one’s principles. It will in the end be subject only to the tests entailed by one’s own higher-order principles: a person of integrity only abandons a principle because a higher-order principle that she’s avowed demands that she do so. Persons can permissibly be abandoned for their betrayal of principles; principles are only to be abandoned for their conflict with higher-level principles. Presumably, some principles are never to be abandoned at all.

So understood, person-based loyalty will be contingent on many things well outside of the agent’s control. There are many good reasons for abandoning a person or abandoning a group. If the sheer fact of having a plan for exit from a relationship or group nullifies one’s claim to loyalty,  then loyalty-to-persons will indeed be impossible. But it’ll be impossible because it was premised on false assumptions to begin with: it set up a false object of loyalty ab initio. God aside, persons can’t be relied on as objects of unconditional loyalty in the way that Tessman and others seem to demand of us. They’re too unreliable for that, and the dangers of putting unconditional faith in them puts one at the risk of a kind of moral suicide. (I say “God aside,” but I don’t mean to be recommending theism, much less fideism; God has His own problems as an object of loyalty, but discussing them would take me too far afield.)

It may well be true, as Tessman implies, that too many comfortable intellectuals set the threshold for betrayal or abandonment too low: unaffiliated or disconnected intellectuals, freed of responsibility for realizing practical aims in the world, tend to demand too much in the way of consistency with their own principles as the price of membership in a group designed to get something done. Intellectuals are not typically about getting stuff done–a bug rather than a feature in their software. But I think it’s equally true that a threshold has to be set somewhere, and set as a matter of principle. Loyalty unregulated by principle is a descent into group-think and eventually, insanity.

What if no existing groups satisfy one’s moral criteria? Then it’d be a fool’s errand to join any of them. Pace Tessman, in cases like that, the thing to say is not that loyalty lacks application, but that one’s primary loyalty is to oneself. It may well be that by “abandoning” or “betraying” groups in need of one’s efforts, support, or talents, one abandons those groups to a terrible fate. That’s painful and tragic, but I feel less conflicted than Tessman over it. It’s sad to abandon a group, and sadder still to abandon–or have to abandon–friends, families, or lovers. But self-betrayal is worse. And if, as Tessman herself admits, oppression can subvert the victims’ capacity for virtue, that very fact can make it quixotic to try too hard to save them from the ravages of oppression.  At a certain point, one has to admit that there is a moral equivalent of medical futility: sometimes one has no choice, in the name of moral self-preservation, but to abandon the patient to her fate. And sometimes, as first-responders know, the dangers of intervention can outweigh any benefits likely to arise from it.

Though (like Roderick Long) I generally admire Tessman’s book, a basic problem with Burdened Virtues is its tendency to set the bar for virtue unrealistically high, and then to lament our inability to satisfy its demands in just that form. Tessman sometimes seems to me more attached to the dilemmas created by the demands she sets than in the resources we have for resolving the dilemmas–e.g., by questioning the demands themselves. There is, as I see it, no need to demand from the outset that a virtue of loyalty take the form of an unconditional attachment to a set of people rather than as adherence to a set of principles that apply to people. That our personal loyalties are mediated through our loyalty to principles seems to me to make the personal ones more secure rather than less. Maybe that makes me an “identity traitor” (Sandra Harding) or a “disconnected critic at large” (Michael Walzer), but if so, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. The alternatives strike me as a lot worse.


*For MacIntyre’s view, see “Is Patriotism a Virtue?,” Lindley Lecture, 1994 (24 page PDF).

Thanks to John Davenport, Roderick Long, David Potts, David Riesbeck, and Michael Young for the stimulating discussions that led to this essay.

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