There has been much talk of loyalty, famously described by a US presidential pre-candidate in a recent debate as the willingness to ‘take one for the team’, even when such actions are contrary to one’s principles and harmful to others.
In some quarters, it has become fashionable to equate blind allegiance with virtue. Politicians vote against the interests of their constituents when their parties demand it; soldiers cover up atrocities committed by their comrades in arms; policemen refuse to testify against corrupt fellow officers; family, friends, and neighbors institute a code of silence to protect wrong-doers; students abhor ‘snitches’ and ‘tattlers’ at school; corporate whistleblowers are deemed disloyal…
What is loyalty? Does it demand that we place group identity, ‘belonging’, over truth and principle? The origin of the word is in the Old French “loialte“, rooted in the Latin “lex“, meaning “law”. One who is loyal, in the feudal sense of fealty, is one who has full legal rights as a consequence of faithful allegiance to a feudal lord. The concept has evolved since the middle ages, and most people today understand it to mean “the willing, practical, and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to another person, a group, or a cause”.
Western philosophers and ethicists have attempted to further explain loyalty by examining some of its characteristics. They propose that loyalties differ in basis: they may be constructed upon the basis of unalterable facts that constitute a personal connection between the subject and the object of loyalty, including biological ties, or place of birth. Alternatively, they may be constructed out of personal choice and evaluation of criteria, unprejudiced by circumstances.
Loyalties differ in strength, and can range from supreme loyalties that override all other considerations, to merely presumptive loyalties, providing but one motivation for action that is weighed against other motivations. The strength of loyalty is often interrelated with basis. “Blood is thicker than water,” states an aphorism, explaining that loyalties that have biological ties as their bases are often generally stronger than loyalties that do not.
Loyalties differ in scope. They range from loyalties with limited scope, which require few actions of the subject, to loyalties with broad or even unlimited scopes, which require many actions, or indeed total commitment. Loyalty to one’s job may require no more than simple punctuality and performance of the tasks that the job requires. Loyalty to a family member can, in contrast, require considerable personal sacrifice. Extreme patriotic or religious loyalty may impose an unlimited scope of duties.
Loyalties differ in legitimacy. People with one loyalty can hold that another person’s loyalty is either legitimate or illegitimate. In the extreme view, as with religious sectarians and xenophobes, all loyalties except one’s own are considered illegitimate. The xenophobe doesn’t regard the loyalties of people of other countries to those countries as legitimate. The religious extremist does not acknowledge the legitimacy of any other religion. At the other end of the spectrum, past the middle ground of considering some loyalties as legitimate and others not, or plain and simple indifference to other people’s loyalties, is the positive regard of other people’s loyalties.
Finally, loyalties differ in the attitude that the subjects of the loyalties have towards other people. This dimension of loyalty concerns the subjects of the loyalty, whereas legitimacy, above, concerns the loyalties themselves. People may have one of a range of possible attitudes towards others who do not share their loyalties, with hate and disdain at one end, indifference in the middle, and concern and positive feeling at the other.
Dharma teachings recommend that all loyalties —as indeed must all thoughts, words, and deeds— be guided and based on principle. That overriding principle is bodhichitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment, the intense wish that all sentient beings be happy, free of suffering, and peaceful in this life, and that they attain perfect liberation and enlightenment. In other words, the Dharma teaches that, instead of “us and them”, there is only one universal team.
Specifically, bodhichitta entails the cultivation of compassion, loving kindness, empathy, and equanimity, and the practice of the six transcendent perfections: generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and discernment toward all sentient beings, without exception.
On the negative side, loyalty must not —under most circumstances— lead us to violate the fundamental five precepts: avoidance of killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxication.
True loyalty emanates from commitment to spiritual cultivation. Our interactions with others, both friend and enemy, must be guided by Dharma. That is the only loyalty that is necessary, since in following the Dharma, we cannot but be ‘loyal’ to the best and ultimate interests of ourselves and others. The whole world is our team.