The moral pitfall of prizing loyalty over other virtues


In many contexts, loyalty is rightly regarded as an important moral virtue. But when someone places loyalty above all other values, it indicates not an appreciation of a moral virtue but something morally more troubling.

This is particularly important to understand when someone who places an excessive value on loyalty occupies a position of great power. What does it mean if such a leader appoints cronies rather than competent people to important positions? What does it mean if he bestows honors on people who have been loyal to him as an individual but have ill served the greater good?

Such practices - such a preoccupation with loyalty - reveal that the leader in question inhabits a world in which true morality is scarcely relevant.

History reveals that groups in which loyalty is most highly prized are those embedded in a social system so fragmented that they cannot contain that wholeness (harmony, synergy) we call the Good.

The oaths of fealty in medieval Europe, for example, were important precisely because, in that fragmented feudal system, with no overarching order to hold the various actors in check, a chronic state of war existed among the principalities. The strife of the era is still mirrored in the European landscape, where we see the ruins of castles surrounded by high walls. Those castles are good metaphors for the mindset in which loyalty is the supreme value. It is a world in which a great price is paid simply for protection against a hostile outside world, a world where Inside and Outside are divided into an Us and Them postured in expectation of war to the death.

When the world is viewed as an arena for perpetual war, the crucial distinction is not between right and wrong but between friend and enemy. It is a world in which one might feel that anyone who is not for us should be assumed to be against us.

The chronic war that was an inescapable objective reality for the masters of medieval fiefdoms can be a psychological reality for people who live in better-ordered worlds. The problem is that by dealing with the world as one in which the state of war is chronic, such people can degrade the good order around them. In fomenting strife where it is unnecessary and destroying the possibilities for cooperation, they can make the world more like what, in their twisted vision, they imagine it to be.

Like feudal lords, the gangster also dwells in a system in which fragmentation dictates that war is a chronic condition. And thus for the gangster, too, being able to trust the fealty of those within the fortified walls is a matter of life-and-death importance.

The issue of trust is woven throughout The Godfather saga - whether it is the fatal indiscretion of the hotheaded brother in the first film or the fatal betrayal by the weak brother in the second.

"Never tell anyone outside the family what you really think," Don Corleone tells his hotheaded son. "Fredo, you broke my heart," says the new godfather because his brother has allowed enemies to breach the family's protective walls.

Under the shadows of danger and distrust, the gangster wages war against all whose loyalty is not proved. It is part of an ethic in which the power to prevail is the only value.

A world in which loyalty is so profound a value that it displaces all of the others, then, is part of an amoral framework that is all about service to the aggrandizing self. This is a self that never feels it has enough security and thus seeks all the power and wealth it can get. It is a self that knows no larger or greater good for which it might sacrifice some part of its personal empire.

Whenever nations give great power to such a self, their structures of harmony and good order will be degraded.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution." His e-mail address is at his Web site, He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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