Today's Three Choices For Loyalty

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

As I enter my 96th year, I find myself time and time looking back in my life for influences from family and friends that have helped make me what l am today.

The subject of loyalty was paramount in the demands and influences from my family: loyalty to the family, country and friends. Accordingly, I've tried to pass on these virtues to my own family: three fine children and their spouses and four exceptional grandchildren. At times I'm overdoing it- but I can't help it!

I really thought I had gotten this matter of loyalty clearly to my family, but recently I had the surprise of my life. I had lunch at the Tavern- Club with my two granddaughters: bright and beautiful, good students, always ready to help others- model children in every way, except in my mind the following.

The subject of loyalty came up and one of my granddaughters said this: "Grandad, you know we love you but I have to tell you­if you or even our mother committed a' serious' crime, I'd be the first to can the police and turn her or you over."

My reply was: "If you or any member of our family committed a serious crime, I'd talk to you, support you and never, never turn you in. That's what a father and a family is for."

"Grandad, you're not with it. Justice is more important than loyalty."

These rather devastating comments from my grandchildren have not changed my attitude towards loyalty but have set me out to examine the personal and impersonal structure of loyalty and what scholars have written about it.

At a time when worldwide children's attitudes towards their family is changing, age­old political structures are crumbling, civil strife abounds and economic uncertainty dominates the news, loyalty with a capital L offers us security in our relationships with associates, friends and family.

Our loyalties are important signs of the kind of persons we now have chosen to become.
They mark a kind of consistency of fastness in our attachment to those persons, groups or institutions, or ideals with which we have deliberately decided to associate ourselves.

Yet ordinary loyalty, and here I stress the word ordinary, for there is another loyalty brings with it many problems impartial, it is not blind and in many ways violates principles of morality that have dominated our lives for hundreds of years.

Loyalties can also be irrational and contrary to the spirit of capitalism. In a free market society, we are encouraged to move to the competition when we are not happy. This way of thinking has injured our personal relationships and undermine our capacities for friendship and loyalty to those who do not serve our immediate interest.

Ordinary loyalty, like religions, beget countless sins. Kinship ties promote gifts and bequests that constitute wealth in particular families. Nepotism favor friends over merit in filling important positions. The greatest sin of loyalty, of course, is war.

Ordinary loyalty brings with it questions: Your closest friend confesses to she has committed a murder. She expects you to facilitate her escape. Do you call the police? Or to recall the dramatic conflictin the film Music Box, your father war criminal but since then has led an exemplary life. Do you turn back on him? Are you committed to a national cause but you know that many leaders of the movement exploit the cause for private dishonest ends. Do you speak out against them? Do you hurt a cause because you believe other are corrupt? These are cases in which duties of loyalty reach their limits and leave questions.

One would like to think that there would be a formulaic response to these conflicts, a guide that would tell us something more specific than that we must do the right thing.

Actually we have three choices in dealing with the virtue of loyalty in our lives.

First, we can decide to be absolutely free: we live without commitments either to family, country or friends. This to me is an unacceptable way of life. It shows lack of courage, manhood if you like. It's cowardly.

Second, you can accept the flexible requirement of ordinary loyalty, reflect on the difficulties of reaching decisions, accept that moral theory is ill-suited to resolving the pangs of conscience and decide each case on merits and common sense at the time. This is called "I'll be absolutely loyal to you, so long as you are right!"- And this is where most of us stand and in my personal view not all to our credit and the good of society.

There is a third choice and it's an awesome choice and not for everyone. In his excellence and authoritative book on loyalty, Josiah Royce, my former professor at Harvard, offers us the choice of loyalty-to loyalty, or put in a more stark way: unconditional loyalty. An awe­some example of this is what Laelis says to Caesar: "If you bid me plunge my sword in my brother's breast or parents' throat or womb loyalty to loyalty and because of your choice and service to your cause, there is a maximum of increase of loyalty amongst your fellow man." In accepting the unconditional loyalty choice, you must understand that the word unconditional means percisely that.

(Posting date 18 December 2006)

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