No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other… Matthew 6 verse 24
The concept of loyalty is one that is highly underrated but permeates nearly every facet of our lives. It is seen as a virtue in many religions and cultures and is taken for granted in different types of relationships. Philosophers have found the concept to be somewhat self-contradictory and see it both as a virtue and a potentially problematic value. The self-contradictory nature of loyalty is manifested in what may be described as ‘blind loyalty’, seen in acts that are antithetical to normal human life such as terrorism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that loyalty is taken as being intrinsically good, and yet may not necessarily be valuable in and of itself in certain types of relationships. This post is a random note on loyalty and explores its dimensions, narrowing to a particular aspect of it – romantic relationships. It concludes by highlighting some embedded principles within loyalty itself that could support the maintenance of personal dignity, and, to some extent, pre-existing social capital, in the aftermath of relationships.
Loyalty manifests in different forms. Countries expect and even demand patriotism – an expression of loyalty that is seen as part of the requirements for citizenship. Couples in relationships, in most cases, except where there is an explicit mutual understanding to the contrary, expect a degree of fidelity. Siblings are naturally expected to care for or about each other. Firms, or other categories of institutions, expect employees and service providers to apply themselves for the good of the firm and not undermine its productivity or profitability in any way. This perhaps explains signings of propriety and confidentiality agreements and why revealing trade secrets is taken very seriously. Institutions also expect clients (for example students) to act in certain ways that promote and do not undermine their ethos. Politicians expect subordinates (political allies mostly, but also constituents, depending on the context) to follow them without reservations. In fact, in the realm of politics, the unwritten code is that the extent of a person’s loyalty will determine their place and survival in the systems or structures.
Loyalty is intricately linked with trust and respect. It is also linked to values such as dependability and credibility, and significant amounts of social capital are invested in it. Thus, the betrayal of trust has serious repercussions and impacts for both parties involved whether at interpersonal or institutional levels. The aftermath of such relationships can be detrimental to one or both parties. For example, if a person or contractor (individual or another institution) reveals trade secrets, recipes, etc., it could have serious negative implications for a firm’s bottom line. If found out, the person could face prosecution thus potentially risking reputational damage. In either case, both the firm and the person or institution in question could lose both business and social capital. As argued by philosophers, this point, linked to whistle blowing, is a grey area. What if a person views their act of revealing secrets and private material held by institutions as being in the interest of the common good (Edward Snowden for example)? Regardless of these tensions and contentions, when a person breaks the expectations of dependability, trust and credibility, the magnitude and extent of prior investments taken into account, the loss of loyalty could be expensive. For example, the loss of an employee in whom an institution has made significant investments by way of professional development can affect morale and productivity in the short, medium or even long-term. The same could apply when a person’s support to a firm is not reciprocated or ends in a reprimand or exclusion.
One place where the loss of loyalty hurts the most is in interpersonal relationships – lifelong friendships, sibling relationships and romantic relationships. The loss of loyalty in these circumstances, especially romantic ones, can have severe impacts, including distorting or shaping a person’s life trajectory. Whenever a romantic relationship breaks down due to disloyalty, something is lost. Often, at the start of relationships, people make promises, implicitly or explicitly, or set expectations about future possibilities. These may be: more time spent together, not seeing other people, not doing anything that would hurt the other or a lifetime together. Regardless of what is said or not said, the breakdown or relationships hurt. More often than not, the consequences for the person on the receiving end are severe. These could include a withdrawal of trust for other people, a range of psychological challenges (including depression), loss of productivity, and income. In extreme cases, it could result in suicide. Each time a relationship ends, be it a break-up or breakdown in formal divorce, loyalty is broken, and someone feels a pinch, even if momentarily.
But break-ups and breakdowns of relationships don’t diminish loyalty or extinguish it. In some cases, it remains with a person for life. People make memories and these memories don’t disappear. They often linger. This begs the question of what can be done to minimise the impact of a loss of loyalty as experienced in break-ups. There is a well-established industry of relationship counselling and post-divorce support in some parts of the world, and elaborate sets of resources to help bounce back have been developed. Here the focus is on two overarching aspects of loyalty that may guide post-break-up or breakdown support. As mentioned earlier, respect is an intricate aspect of loyalty. Thus, both in the life of a relationship and its aftermath, respect is crucial. The second is honesty. Respect for oneself and the other, and honesty to oneself and the other are important ideas that permeate support systems and are emphasised in different ways. Respect and honesty could help heal, and prevent the messiness that could sometimes result from the breakdown of loyalty. Unpacking and embedding these ideas more in detailed post-break-up support could be important elements in addition to the many that are emphasised such as forgiveness.
Loyalty is a very important philosophical idea but not much is known or written about it as yet. As it applies to everyday life, perhaps a good starting point would be to define its relevance, draw out its key underlying principles, and try to make sense of how some of these such as respect, honesty, truthfulness, perseverance, dependability and credibility could help better understand its value to human life and how to deal with the loss of loyalty.