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.