Loyalty or Sycophantism?

In the past week I’ve been hearing the media say that Donald Trump values loyalty over anything else in the people he works with. It’s because of his desire for loyalty that he wants his sons and son-in-law on his transition team, the media reports. I think this is one example of the media “normalizing” a pathological man’s unacceptable behaviour.

Loyalty sounds like such a great thing, doesn’t it? We all want loyal friends and partners. Surely loyalty is a virtue?

I’ve been a skeptic of loyalty since I was a child, when I was excluded from a whole clique of grade-school girls because one of them didn’t like me, and the others closed ranks against me out of loyalty.

In adulthood I came to distinguish between loyalty to principle and loyalty to a person. Loyalty to principle seems like it can’t be a bad thing, in so far as a principle is a moral idea. In that case loyalty means commitment to a positive, valuable idea. I’ve come to realize that even that kind of loyalty can be destructive. But let me first talk about loyalty to a person.

We can all sympathize with a mother who supports and justifies a child who has gone wrong. It’s a sad, but more or less understandable thing, to see such a woman on television, arguing her son couldn’t have murdered so and so, or raped so and so because he’s a “good boy”. Her loyalty blinds her to the truth, and that is a problem with loyalty. But what if this mother hides her son so he can’t be tried and punished for his crime? Or if she blackmails or harms witnesses to the crime? In those cases her loyalty is destructive and immoral, right?

Loyalty is, worst of all, a condition of tribalism. The top dog of any group, whether it’s a nationality, an ethnic group, a criminal gang or a family demands loyalty, and when he does, he’s too often demanding unqualified support for his views and actions, no matter whether they’re morally positive, or destructive. He wants enablers. He wants sycophants.

This is what Trump wants. He’ll bring in people who won’t challenge his irrationality, his paranoia, his selfishness and his immaturity. Possibly the only “safe” people will be his family members  — unless he can find enough other people who share his irrationality, paranoia and selfishness – which will not be good for America.

To return to loyalty to a principle, let me bring up a criticism made of Hillary Clinton. People accused her of believing it’s possible to have a public and a private opinion on things. They thought that was a bad thing, a form of hypocrisy. But if you’re elected to serve all people, do you have a right to force your own personal opinion on all of them? Ideologues, people who are loyal to a principle without regard for people, believe they do. And so you get the rightwing pseudo-Christians who feel they have an obligation to make abortion illegal for everyone, possibly even some forms of birth control illegal for everyone. Pragmatists, on the other hand, and I believe Clinton is a pragmatist, believe you have to do the best you can to benefit the majority of people. A pragmatist, a believer in democracy, might then keep their own objection to abortion private, and allow the majority to vote their own conscience. If that means abortion is legal, so be it.

Ideologues are dangerous. They too are in thrall to primitive patriarchal tribalism, gang mentality that values fawning dogs and eliminates challengers.

These two things — the normalizing of loyalty as a valid top criteria for a leader, and the criticism of having differing private and public opinions — suggest that Americans don’t really know what democracy is, or what the conditions are for its existence. Democracy means people are free to have their own values and opinions, while bowing to the will of the majority. Democracy relies on constant challenges to power, not on sycophants who enable the powerful to operate against the best interests of all.

It seems appropriate to refer to the American philosopher, Josiah Royce, who developed an entire philosophy of loyalty:

      Royce observes that the highest moral achievements throughout history have             involved  individuals’ loyalty to ideals that promote the formation and expansion of communities of loyalty. Many of the worst deeds have also involved a high degree of loyalty, but this loyalty is directed exclusively to a particular group and is expressed in the destruction of the conditions for others’ loyal actions, of those other persons, and even of one’s own community and cause. Royce generalized the difference between true loyalty and vicious or “predatory” loyalty as follows:

a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows. (Royce 1995 [1908], 56)

All the communities we actually know, those we inhabit and identify with, are finite and to some degree “predatory” in Royce’s sense. This is clearly true of small social cliques, isolated intellectual communities, parochial religious groups, self-interested unions and corporations, local political movements, and other such groups. Roycean loyalty requires one to scrutinze the aims and actions of such communities and to work to reform their disloyal aspects. The philosophy of loyalty calls us first of all, then, to create and embrace more cosmopolitan and inclusionary communities. It should be clear that this is only the first important step of an infinite process aimed at realizing the ideal of universal loyalty.  (plato.stanford.edu/entries/royce/)



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