Most people look upon loyalty as a virtue. We value loyal friends, loyal citizens, loyal workers. But when is loyalty a vice? I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I came across a paper by philosopher Laurie Calhoun, “A Critique of Group Loyalty.”
I’m a pretty loyal person. I don’t drop loyalties on a whim. I’ve been getting my hair cut by the same woman, Betsy of Hair Headquarters, for 28 years. My first marriage lasted for 18 years and now I’ve been married to Laurel for 15 years. I’ve had a Casio watch on my wrist for as long as I can remember.
And I’ve been faithfully attending meetings (a.k.a. “satsangs”) of the same spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), for 35 years. I take commitments seriously, especially spiritual commitments. When I became a member of RSSB I took a vow to meditate two and a half hours a day (yes, really), be a vegetarian, not imbibe alcohol or drugs, and, rather vaguely, “live a clean and moral life.”
Religious groups or churches usually expect that members will adhere to some sort of standards. Even Unitarians, though theirs is basically an appealing “respect all standards” standard. If there wasn’t any way to distinguish “believers” from “non-believers,” you wouldn’t have a defined spiritual system.
However, belief and non-belief isn’t a strict dichotomy. There are shades of gray. You can kind of believe in something, just as you can kind of share a group’s beliefs. People often continue belonging outwardly to a “church” (using that term to mean any kind of religious organization) after they’ve stopped belonging inwardly.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Denver, was quoted as saying, “We’re at a time for the Church in our country when some Catholics—too many—are discovering that they’ve gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass.”
The same is true of every other church. Just because you’re sitting with a group listening to a sermon doesn’t mean that you agree with what is being preached. So, why do you stay? Often, because you feel that you should be loyal to the group. So, why should you be loyal?
Laurie Calhoun says, “In spite of the positive connotation of ‘loyalty,’ the concept is itself morally neutral, and remaining loyal to a group whose values one does not share is irrational.” She adds, “Loyalty involves a commitment to go along with one’s group, even when the group’s action is something that, left to one’s own devices, one would not have thought to do. In other words, loyalty is supposed to provide an extra reason to do what one would not otherwise do.”
Group loyalty is different from individual loyalty. When I gave examples of how I’ve been loyal, only my membership in RSSB involves a group loyalty of the sort Calhoun is speaking about.
For example, I keep getting my hair cut by Betsy because I want to. If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t. There’s no group putting pressure on me, either outwardly or inwardly. Every time I call Betsy up and make an appointment, my hair-cutting action is totally consistent with my hair-cutting belief. I believe that Betsy is a good haircutter and I have her cut my hair.
When it comes to questions of ethics or morality, though, I have to decide whether I choose to answer these questions myself or to accept the answer of an outside authority. Calhoun says, “An ethics by authority responds to the fundamental principle of moral philosophy—‘What should I do?’—with a simple, univocal answer: ‘Do what you are told to do.’ The voice of some institutional (e.g., familial, religious, governmental, educational) authority is accepted as a moral authority.”
The problem with this approach, she says, is that we never have truly solid grounds for believing that another human being is a moral sage. Many people accept that someone else (such as the Pope, or a guru) is better attuned to the “word of God” than they are themselves. So they submit to what this person says to do morally rather than to what they would consider is right, if left to their own devices.
In other words, loyalty to a group ethic is valued more highly than loyalty to one’s own sense of right and wrong. A religious group almost always has its moral compass pointed at supposedly unquestionable ethical standards; if a member’s personal morality turns in a different direction, how can this conflict be resolved?
Calhoun has a simple answer: “The rational approach to conflicts between one’s own moral conscience and one’s group is to defer ultimately to one authority alone, namely, one’s own conscience.” As an academic, Calhoun likes to use words like “rational.” But the approach she suggests has a strong intuitive appeal also. Basically it comes down to follow your heart, because you’ll go off course if you do anything else.
In her paper Calhoun lays out the logical reasons for following one’s conscience when a person’s intuition about a policy conflicts with the prevailing opinion of his or her group. If you go along with the group, then whether the group is right or wrong (assuming there really is a “right” and “wrong” when it comes to moral issues), you fail.
You fail because if you go along with the group, whether it is right or wrong, you aren’t acting with moral and intellectual integrity. Basically, your loyalty to the group is stronger than your loyalty to the truth—the truth of your own conscience. Because you don’t want to incur the consequences of going against the group (ostracism, condemnation, etc.), your outward actions betray your inward inclinations. Even if you’re doing the right thing, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and motive is all-important in morality.
Calhoun says, “When should we dissent from the policies of our groups? Precisely and only when they conflict with our deepest convictions and values. If a policy is sound, then we should support it. If it is not, then we should not support it… A group is not good simply because it is a group…Although religions may appease the human need for security, they become irrational when they begin to erode people’s fundamental values.”
And she ends with this statement:
“We have found that the prioritization of loyalty over one’s fundamental convictions and values is, at best, irrational and self-delusive and, at worst, dangerous. To describe a human being as ‘loyal’ is not to pay him a compliment.”
After many years of unquestioning group loyalty I’m now trying to do my best to determine, in acts either great or small, what my own conscience tells me to do. For if I’m not acting true to myself, its not worth doing.