Politics and loyalty

In this series of articles, I’m exploring the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s core moral foundations and in particular how they relate to our political beliefs.

Loyalty is the third moral foundation, and Haidt defines it like this:

Loyalty/Betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.“

Tricky definition. On one hand, loyalty is a virtue. Self-sacrifice for the group is as virtuous as it gets. And the opposite (betrayal) is clearly a negative quality.

And yet, self-sacrifice for the group is the attitude of a suicide bomber. It’s what drives young men to kill for their country. It pits “us” against “them.” Is this really a virtue?

And is the opposite of loyalty really betrayal? Is it not simply impartiality, or neutrality? When loyalists are losing their heads and taking up arms, it requires a steadying neutral voice to calm things down and prevent bloodshed.

It seems that loyalty is even more nuanced than fairness (which is a complete can of worms).

Some kinds of loyalty are uncontroversial. Loyalty to your husband or wife is the bedrock of society. When I swore to love my wife for better or for worse, there was no nuance. It was an absolute commitment. When my first child was born, my commitment to care for him was also absolute. When my second child was born, I worried that my love might become diluted, but I learned that the wonderful thing about love is that it is expandable.

There are other loyalties that are beyond reproach. When you make a promise, or are in someone’s debt, that should create an unbreakable obligation.

But beyond that, loyalty becomes irrational. Why favour the group over an outsider? It seems to be a legacy from our evolutionary past. Primates habitually kill primates from other family groupings. Loyalty could well be the seed of all human conflict.

Personally, I find loyalty beyond immediate personal relations to be questionable. I do buy from the local farm shop, but for selfish reasons – it’s convenient, and I want it to thrive so that it continues to stay open. I don’t buy products because they are British – my car is German, my TV Japanese and my computer made in China. These are rational economic decisions that promote the greater good (not merely the parochial good).

And human rights are about everyone getting equal rights – not just “people like us.”

Liberals tend to rate Loyalty as less important than the Care and Fairness values. Conservatives regard it as equally important. Yet  liberals are often found arguing in favour of “buying local” and conservatives tend to favour free trade and globalisation. What a paradox.

It seems to me that Loyalty is  something we should value, but hold up to scrutiny. Understanding its evolutionary origins and its potential dangers would be a wise approach.

13 responses to “Politics and loyalty

  1. Great article, but what did it for me was the dog.

  2. Fan of Dickens

    Maybe the key is the difference between blind loyalty and considered loyalty? I am loyal to my husband because he is a wonderful human being, not because he is my husband (excuse the schmaltz). It is dangerous, as you indicate, to be doggedly loyal to anything or anyone – political leader, religious belief or whatever – when it is clear that hurt or harm is being done.

  3. As a liberal who scored high on the loyalty foundation, I have a visceral loyalty to my family and friends, but that loyalty is usually more abstract beyond that. (Although when my country was attacked, my feelings of loyalty to it surged.) That said, the farther outside of my personal radius you move, the more that loyalty is likely to be overtaken with the care or fairness impulses.

    I like your last paragraph. I think it’s something we should say for all of these foundations.

    • I see a theme developing. By understanding our core moral foundations, we can question them when necessary and make wise choices. Otherwise we are just running on autopilot.

  4. the trouble occurs when you have, say, a suicide bomber who believes he/she is acting with the highest of morals. After all, if you think that the innocent people that you kill are going to go to heaven then how will you be persuaded that actually, they might rather stay on earth for a bit longer. If you are not a reasonable person, you are not going to apply reason to your moral foundations.

    • Exactly, Elaine. I’m sure that most terrorists regard themselves as highly moral people acting for a worthy cause. Dismissing them as “evil” is entirely failing to understand what drives extremists. I have written about that several times on this blog, e.g. https://blogbloggerbloggest.com/2013/01/13/who-needs-evil

      The only way we are going to rid the world of such evil is by engaging in dialogue and discussion. I believe that everyone is capable of reason, but that we are prone to believing unreasonable belief systems. They are like a disease that spreads from person to person. Education and debate are our best defences.

      • Yes they are. I agree. But we also have to accept that there will always be extremists, and cruelty, and unreasonable people.

        • When I look at the great sweep of history, I tend to be optimistic. Thousands of years ago, people couldn’t plant crops without asking the gods to make them grow. They would even sacrifice other humans to keep the gods happy. Hundreds of years ago people were OK with slavery and oppression of all kinds of minorities. In modern times we still have a lot of problems in the world, but I feel that there has been progress even in my own lifetime. Where might we be in a hundred years from now?

  5. Hi Steve. You come very close to Aristotle’s ethic of moderation when you say that impartiality is the virtuous mean between the vices of betrayal on the one hand and excessive loyalty on the other. Well said. But “loyalty,” as you point out, like all words, has different uses in different contexts (words are not, alas for those who crave certainty of expression, metaphysically attached to fixed meanings). I think loyalty to a principle like impartiality or Kant’s categorical imperative must be weighed out differently than personal loyalty. BTW, I’ve never taken the “test,” but I (an unregenerate liberal) think I’d put “care and fairness” above personal loyalty and even with loyalty to ethical principles (as “care and fairness” are perhaps inextricable from my ethical principles).

    • Thanks for your input and especially for comparing my thinking to Aristotle’s 🙂

      I recommend you take the test. Answering questions about real-world problems is more revealing than choosing between abstract principles of care and loyalty. You might be surprised – I was.

  6. Pingback: American positions on moral issues and tensions between the moral foundations | SelfAwarePatterns

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