Is Loyalty a Virtue?

I like to think of myself as a pretty loyal person. I’m wary of loyalty to imagined communities like nations, but when it comes to family members and close friends, I’d even say that I’m fiercely loyal. But one of the many consequences of the Trump presidency is that I’ve been reconsidering the moral status of loyalty.

Next to sad (sorry, Sad!), great, and 1st person pronouns, loyal and loyalty have got to be two of this president’s favorite words. Just in the first week of February, for example:

  • Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast on the 2nd: “Our soldiers understand that what matters is not party or ideology or creed, but the bonds of loyalty that link us all together as one.”
  • “We are here to serve you, they great and loyal citizens of the United States of America,” he said in his weekly address the following day.
  • Then at MacDill Air Force Base on the 6th, the Commander in Chief told service men and women, “We love our country. We are loyal to our people.”

A lot of this plays on national allegiance as a kind of loyalty, as in this much-parsed part of Trump’s inaugural address:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

Jeff Sessions being sworn in as Attorney General by Mike Pence
Trump at the swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Sessions… more in a moment (U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Now, I’ve already argued at some length that calls for this kind of loyalty — if truly “total” — should appall Christians. (Or anyone who has spent any time studying the 20th century.) But it’s another meaning that has me rethinking the virtue: what Trump means when he demands personal loyalty of government employees like FBI director James Comey.

Comey, of course, was fired when he proceeded with investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. When asked for loyalty in a private meeting early in the presidency, he had instead replied, “You will always get honesty from me.”

So what does loyalty, in this interpersonal sense, mean to Donald Trump? Here’s what he said in a 1992 interview (as reported by Mediaite after Comey testified before a Senate committee):

“I would’ve wiped the floor with the guys who weren’t loyal — which I will now do,” Trump told Charlie Rose. “I love getting even with people.”

He added, “If given the opportunity, I will get even with some people who were disloyal to me.”

Trump was asked by Rose how he defined loyalty.

“They didn’t come to my aid,” Trump said. He added, “They didn’t do small things that would’ve helped.”

(In my critique of the inaugural address, I noted that Trump replaced love, a theme of presidents like Ronald Reagan, with loyalty: “As far as I can tell, loyalty does not appear in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it typically refers to political relationships that are absent in a democratic republic — as in a personal fealty to a ruler, which citizens of this nation owe no president.”)

Of course, we’ve had ample evidence of that 1992 definition this week, as Trump simultaneously proclaimed the virtue of loyalty to Boy Scouts (whose “law” places loyalty right behind trustworthiness in a list of virtues) while bullying one of his earliest, most loyal GOP supporters, Jeff Sessions, the former senator who recused himself as U.S. Attorney General from the Russia investigation. Here’s why that speech so deeply disturbed Washington Post editorial writer Stephen Stromberg, a former Boy Scout himself:

Worst of all, the president twisted the meaning of the scout law. “As the scout law says, a scout is trustworthy, loyal — we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” he said in an apparent reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump has recently demeaned Sessions, one of his oldest allies, because the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation, in accordance with Justice Department ethics guidelines. Loyalty for Trump is personal and flows in one direction — he expects it but does not give it. The loyalty that the scouts — and, for that matter, the Justice Department — stand for belongs not to a single man but to the country and its democratic system.

“Loyalty is an important concept to Donald Trump,” concluded Matthew Yglesias as he observed Trump’s treatment of Sessions. “But it’s not something he values in the normal human sense of reciprocal obligation. Instead, to Trump, the value that matters is loyalty to Donald Trump. That kind of loyalty matters a lot.”

It wouldn’t be hard to find better exemplars of loyalty. But however extreme his rhetoric or conduct, don’t they remind us that there inherent limits on even well-intentioned loyalty, whether to a nation or another person? Even if Trump actually honored a “normal human sense of reciprocal obligation,” doesn’t the interaction with Comey (and perhaps now the treatment of Sessions) suggest that loyalty is bound to come in tension with honesty and integrity?

And if so, can we truly think of loyalty as a virtue?

Yes, says Australian philosopher John Kleinig. As the subtitle of his book, On Loyalty and Loyaltiesacknowledges, loyalty is a “problematic virtue,” most basically because “it often keeps bad company.” Loyalty, in short, is often placed in deeply flawed objects — indeed, the loyal person can have a hard time assessing worthiness, and instead falls back on the category of trust. But other virtues (e.g., truthfulness) can help guard against the pitfalls of loyalty, and Kleinig believes that it is ultimately essential that we find ways to place our loyalties “in relationships and institutions that contribute in various ways to our human flourishing.”

(Kleinig is also the author of the entry on “Loyalty” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, if you’d rather not read through a nearly 300-page book.)

Kleinig, On Loyalty and LoyaltiesIndeed, he sees (non-absolute) loyalty as a potential corrective to the individualism and fragmentation we so often lament in our society, serving “as many virtues do, as a check on tendencies that interfere with our interactions with others.” He describes “the liberal tradition” as being suspicious of loyalty as they are of “any commitment to social arrangements that jeopardize individual autonomy.” But he also suspects our growing recognition of “the personal and social fragmentation fostered by an excessive individualism” actually prepares us “to appreciate and reconsider the virtue of loyalty.”

One final note… Writing two years before the 2016 election — and not mentioning Donald Trump, as far as I can tell — Kleinig expresses concern about the growing place of absolute personal loyalty even in liberal political systems. (To say nothing of authoritarian ones: he spends a good five or six pages on loyalty in Nazi Germany.) Quoting Edward Weisband and Thomas Franck’s conclusion that, in the American system, “Loyalty to the President has become the overriding ethic,” Kleinig contrasts the corrupting effects of “quiescent loyalty” with the value of a “loyal opposition,” committed to the flourishing of the community but also capable of questioning and even criticizing its leadership.