What is Loyalty?
Loyalty is traditionally viewed as a straightforward virtue. It can be defined as being faithful to a person or cause, but then we have simply replaced the word “loyal” with “faithful” without really defining it. We can define it instead as
- Adopting or accepting a certain set of things (such as an ideology, or a set of “rules”)
- Not betraying that set of things.
That set of things could be simply believing and following the beliefs in a religion or political ideology, or it could be the “rules” that come naturally from being in a relationship with someone. If the person believes in monogamy, then naturally they would have a “rule” that would dictate that they should not be in a similar relationship outside of their first one (“cheating” on your partner).
One can be said to not be loyal if they don’t adopt a set of things. Someone who has never heard of communism is probably not loyal to the cause of communism, but they have also not betrayed the cause. Similarly someone is probably not loyal to someone they’ve never met, but that doe not mean they are unloyal to them. We must then first adopt a set of things to b loyal to them.
Once we have adopted that set of things we must then continue to follow them and never go against them in order to stay loyal. Betrayal is then a fundamental part of the definition of loyalty, assuming that betrayal is possible.
With this definition we see that loyalty is a form of faith. It is the act of staying faithful.
Is Loyalty Good?
Staying faithful to something is not necessarily good though. Staying faithful to an ideology that is flawed, or to something you found out is bad, has no benefits and is not moral. If you find out you’re fighting for the Nazis, theres nothing good about staying loyal to them. Therefore loyalty is not necessarily good either.
Why it Sounds Good
Loyalty sounds like a good things because it shows perseverance despite difficulty. It’s similar to how martyrdom sounds good. In reality this form of persistence only makes any sense if it has any meaning behind it. Fighting for a worthy cause, even if you’re going to lose, is only admirable -if- it is a worthy cause. If the cause isn’t good, then continuing to believe in it isn’t selfless or good, it’s just delusional and close minded. It takes strength to continue to believe in something, but it’s more like it takes denial to continue to believe in something you know is wrong. Theres no point in staying loyal to something imply because you were associated with it before. That could be restated as you’re staying with it because that was the first thing you chose. It’s almost like saying that change is necessarily bad.
Loyalty shows dedication and hard work, it shows a tough decision and suffering, but none of those things are morally good, they’re simply signs of mental strength. While mental strength is a virtue, in this case it is not strength derived from a worthy cause, but from denial.
Loyalty as a Tool
This might also sound like a good thing because those who want or need your support have convinced people that loyalty is a virtue. That consistency for the sake of consistency is somehow a good thing. A king would not want his subjects to leave to another kingdom, an army would not want their soldiers to defect because that would make them weaker and their enemies stronger. To avoid this practical issue they can convince the people that staying with whomever you got stuck with is a virtuous thing to do that should be praised. But there is no practical or moral benefit to the people who have to stay loyal, all it means for them is that they don’t have a choice in the matter.
This is easily seen with religious fanatics, ultra nationalists, violent sports fans, and brand loyalty. Do you know anyone who refuses to buy a product from any brand other than their favourite? Even if that brand is more expensive, or worse? That kind of loyalty doesn’t make any sense. Maybe they had that brand when growing up, or they worked for it, or it’s from where they live. People who are loyal to one company might buy all their products, not just because they enjoy having new products from their favourite company but also because they want to support the company, even if it is multi-billion dollar multinational that does not need or care about their support. They will buy things they don’t need or even necessarily truly want, and they will boycott things they might have enjoyed or needed from other brands because they want to be loyal, even at their own expense. While it’s fine to support your local businesses or people who you think need or deserve it, it’s illogical to feel such attachment to a business that you are loyal to it. The business does not necessarily even know who you are or care about you. It is a feeling of attachment and belonging that the loyal person has fabricated and chooses to believe without any good reason.
The same logic applies to sports fans who will hurt each other because they are loyal to opposing teams. These teams might not even dislike each other, but their fans hate each other simply because of an arbitrary choice they made to support a different set of people playing a game. A lot of these people may have been brought up to support their local teams and did not really have a choice in who they were going to like. To somehow think that being loyal to a team that does not even consist of the same people over time, and has essentially no defining features other than a name and a brand is blind faith in something that doesn’t mean anything other than the meaning they assign to it arbitrarily. To fight for such a concept and hurt others, especially when they were not asked to, is the harmful side of loyalty.
Loyalty in Relationships
But what about relationships? Surely it is a good and moral thing to not cheat to your partner. If you love someone then you are choosing to share your life and intimacy with them, and if you both believe in monogamy then you make a pact that inherently means the other person is special to you. If you share those things with someone else, then your partner is no longer special in that way. It is also immoral to cheat because it usually involves lying to them. I would argue however that a person who believes in monogamy (and therefore cannot love two people equally at the same time) can have all the benefits of loyalty without being loyal. Loyalty to your partner is often simply seen as meaning you are not cheating on them with someone else, but the word loyalty implies blind faith. This could mean that even if you do not love the person you will stay with them to be loyal, which makes no sense and would be destructive to both members, especially if you lie to the person about it.
Loyalty makes you arbitrarily support those you are loyal to or harm everyone else.
The Alternatives to Loyalty
Instead of faith and loyalty, we should be moral and honest and have integrity. Cheating on your partner goes against the beliefs of a monogamist, which would go against one’s integrity. It would hurt your partner, which would be immoral. It would involve lying to your partner, which would be dishonest. If you no longer love your partner then you should not cheat on them or lie to them, you should figure out what to do with your relationship. It is far better to be honest about no loving someone than to lie about it. A good person will not needlessly hurt someone they love, and that does not require loyalty. A soldier who is fighting for a bad cause should change sides. Disloyalty is not a bad thing, loyalty is an arbitrary rule based on faith that has been used against people to manipulate them. A good person does not need loyalty to be good to other people.
Loyalty is not inherently good, it simply means that you are staying the same. Instead of letting people make us be loyal to them, we should think about what would make us good people instead.