It seems to happen with me at every patriotic occasion or holiday. Inevitably some public or private person declares loyalty to our flag, or military, or ideals, or president, and I usually wish I could ask them why. It’s not that I am disloyal to my country or what I take it to represent, morally. I voluntarily served four years of military service during the Vietnam era, vote in every presidential election, and try to stay informed about national issues. I even communicate with my senator upon occasion. But I’m still grappling with the meaning of loyalty as a concept, and I’ll just mention the one area that seems most confused and difficult for most people to understand, though most don’t seem to try.
There seem to be three important elements to the concept, two of which seem to have been covered by the ancients. One is the question of how one develops loyalty; a second is the question of what kinds of actions demonstrate loyalty. If loyalty is a virtue, and by nature an admirable one, then it is likely developed by methods similar to other virtues: by disposing oneself to behaving loyally and then getting in the habit of doing so without having to be prompted by anything other than situation to which your disposition correctly responds. And, as far as the second element goes, Aristotle’s splendid circularity seems to be all most people need in the way of explanation. A loyal action is that action committed by a loyal person. Both these approaches sound insubstantial and insufficient, but I don’t want to argue against them right now. I think there’s a much more important element generally left unexamined.
What deserves loyalty? My son-in-law in Oklahoma, Scott, only drinks Budweiser, and often tends to drink a lot of it. When I visit him and my stepdaughter, Kim, I often bring a case of Kansas City’s fine Boulevard Pale Ale to give his palate a treat. But his palate doesn’t want a treat, or if it does, he is deaf to it. He’s a Bud Man. Other people might describe themselves as Ford Men or Women, Chiefs fans, Tea Baggers. The question I struggle with is whether, by its very description or categorizing as a virtue, or at least a trait desirable to possess, are there any restrictions on what you plausibly can be loyal to, or is it utterly subjective. I strongly lean toward the former, but a part of those struggles I mentioned revolves around how to argue for restrictions on conceptual grounds. Let me try to clear away some underbrush.
Aristotle described the virtues as benefiting the one who possesses them, or practices them. Who or what is benefited by Scott’s loyalty to Budweiser? Depending on how we might describe what Budweiser contributes to his life — though I can attest to what it often brings him early on the morning after — is Budweiser the only, or best source of that benefit? It would be hard to argue that it is. But it would be easy to argue that Scott’s loyalty to Budweiser benefits Budweiser. If Scott unthinkingly consumes that one brand, refusing all others when there is a choice in the matter, Budweiser has no more burden other than to make certain Norman, Oklahoma is saturated with retail sources of its product. I assure you that it is. The same is true of Ford, or the Chiefs. Jesus! The Chiefs! They are a great example of reaping the benefits of loyalty without having to offer a product that even cracks the level of mediocrity. Bad quarterbacks, bad coaches, cynically unresponsive management, and still season tickets get renewed by subscribers who would invariably describe themselves as “loyal.”
Are Chiefs fans getting screwed? Of course. They are paying for a product far inferior to some earlier iterations, as well as contemporary alternatives around the league. But is their loyalty being betrayed? Or, are the Kansas City Chiefs not the sort of entity that deserves loyalty? If the latter is true, as I believe it is, then the fans are not being betrayed on the basis of their loyalty, but on the basis of their financial gullibility. If the fans are loyal to the Chiefs, they have betrayed themselves and their characters by misplacing something precious and important and focusing it on an object unworthy of it. The same analysis could be brought to Ford, Budweiser, and Fox News. What misplaced loyalty to all these objects requires is a short-circuiting of the rational process of criticism. The short-circuiting occurs at two levels: a failure to understand what loyalty expresses about yourself, and a failure to be sufficiently meticulous in choosing what object to express that part of yourself to.
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt would likely describe it as love, and I think he’s right. There is a kind of intimacy connected with loyalty. You make yourself vulnerable when you publicly declare something so revealing as your deep connection to something outside yourself. That’s why loyalty can’t come about through commercial pressures, or peer pressures, or hormonal pressures. I think loyalty is a deep expression both of who you are, and who you wish yourself to be, on your best day. When I taught Epictetus in the Intro course, I used that concept “on your best day.” That’s what loyalty, and conscience, and self strive to do: to help you live each day in search of it coming close to your best day. And I don’t care who you are, if, on your best day, you mindlessly guzzle Budweiser or rabidly toot for the Chiefs, you’re truly one sorry sumbitch. You need to look deeper, and then aim higher.