Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue
by Eric Felten
Reviewed by Will Wlizlo
Loyalists, these days more than ever, are tragic fools. Watch as the longtime company man is replaced by an ambitious twenty-something with social-media skills, the friend-in-need realizes they were actually an accomplice-in-deed, the duty-bound soldier marches into a storm of bullets, the housewife finds an unfamiliar thong under the bed. There is catharsis, revulsion, and predictability in betrayal, yet the framework of our society is fastened together by so many easily- and oft-broken bonds of loyalty. But in the absence of civilization-wide collapse, some of these loyal connections must remain unbroken -- and thrive, even.
Eric Felten, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, set out to uncover why we profess fealty, fidelity, obedience, and trust to the people, institutions, and ideas we do in his latest book Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. Often these loyalties come into disastrous conflict, and it is these roots of human drama that Felten excels at untangling. "Perhaps by understanding the peculiar moral conflicts that loyalty creates," he writes, "we can avoid the worst of the ethical wreckage and form reliable relationships." Although trying to illuminate a moral path that leads to more stable connections, Felten's broad and nuanced understanding of loyalty also sheds light on our motivations for betraying our country, peers, lovers, and family.
Family -- built love, shared suffering, history, and biology -- is one of the strongest ties between individuals. Intense familial obligation goes in all directions: from parent to child, from sister to sister, from uncle to nephew, ad nauseum. Arguably one first learns the value of loyalty from mutual dependence and instinctual love in the household. But if we hold family above all else, what value does that grant our other commitments? It can be a snare, a contradictory moral education. If parents are supposed to instill the capacity for loyalty only in their children, why are we expected to make good on obligations of kin in an us-versus-them pinch? How does society avoid universal adoption of the Tony Soprano Family and Business Program? Thus, wonders Felten, is family "the foundation of all our other loyalties, or a grubby sort of me-and-mine selfishness?"
Although he delves into classical metaphysics and Kantian morality, Felten's journalistic training allows him to explain esoteric philosophy in plain language. Moral treatment of loyalty tends to break down into two camps: universalists and particularists. Universalists are concerned with justice in its most abstracted sense, the type of impartial reasoning found on the courtroom floor. Thus, "The advocates of universalist ethics want us to view the judgments we make in our everyday lives in the same way -- that acting morally requires acting impartially," explains Felten. But particularists -- those who would stay true to their kin regardless of circumstance, for example -- argue that "loyalty is not impartial" nor should it be. But the latter line of moral reasoning will eventually land one in precarious, possibly illegal situations; loyalty is a virtue that often finds itself on the brink of becoming a vice. "The virtue of family loyalty," for example, "remains virtuous only within reasonable bounds. Those bounds may not always be clear, but that doesn't mean they're always obscure."
Reading through Loyalty, it's easy to start seeing life as a collection of connections of various degrees of fidelity. Outside of family affairs, Felten covers many sectors in this "loyal economy," including love, war, patriotism, business, and leadership. Every interaction -- whether social, economic, or professional -- becomes an exchange in the economy. Some investments are profitable in the long run, others will land you in moral poverty.
If you're looking for the answer to whom or to what you ought to be loyal, you won't find it in this book. Felten demonstrates that conflicts can't be avoided by simply prioritizing loyalties -- people are just as prone, if not more susceptible, to getting them mixed up against each other when cognizant of obligation's moral snags. He does, however, make an important point that can lead to better decisions during loyalty tests: Loyalty is about finding the right boundaries. It may be acceptable to stick up for a friend when he has been unfaithful to his wife, but not when he is digging a six-foot-deep hole in his backyard at midnight. Invest your loyalty judiciously.