Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Eric Felten (Simon & Schuster, 309 pp., $25)
Eric Felten calls loyalty “the vexing virtue” because so much of the way we feel about it depends on what it’s being used for. While other virtues, such as honesty and generosity, can also be carried to excess, the people who do carry them to excess are generally thought of as too good or innocent for a wicked world; their virtues are appreciated on an abstract level, regardless of the harm they cause. But who can admire the loyalty exhibited by street gangs or terrorists?
On the other hand, nobody likes a traitor. Even dogs are renowned for their loyalty, so when you’re disloyal, that’s like kicking someone’s dog. Yet what should somebody who wants to be virtuous do when loyalties conflict, or are owed to unworthy people or causes?
Even the greatest thinkers have been unable to make much headway on this problem (hence the book’s subtitle), though they certainly have tried. Felten, a Wall Street Journal culture critic who also writes about drinking and performs as a jazz singer and trombonist, quotes Immanuel Kant saying that “a conflict of duties and obligations is inconceivable,” since if you look closely enough, one of them is always more important than the other. Ergo, a solution exists, though Kant doesn’t bother explaining how to find it. As Felten sardonically summarizes: “Problem solved.”
Nonetheless, Felten gamely has a go at disentangling the mess. He points out that loyalty makes possible all the things we cherish most: “Without loyalty there can be no love. Without loyalty there can be no family. Without loyalty there can be no friendship. Without loyalty there can be no commitment to community or country.” Yet it’s much more than just an efficiency scheme to maximize benefits. The most selfless loyalty, Felten points out, is that between a parent and a child, where the only expectation of a payback is very distant and uncertain, as with Social Security. Family gets a whole chapter; in other chapters he covers loyalty in such areas as friendship, patriotism, love, business (the shortest chapter), and politics (the second shortest).
When properly applied, he explains, loyalty ennobles both the donor and the recipient and reinforces the social ties that bind civilization together: “Without those things, there can be no society.” So loyalty is good for the soul even as it helps perpetuate a beneficial system, thus occupying a middle ground between pure altruism and quid pro quo backscratching.
The problem, of course, is knowing when to give it a rest. What if a friend asks you to cover up a crime? What if you’re stuck in a loveless marriage and then find your soul mate? What if your country asks you to fight in a war you oppose? (This last case shows the folly of reductio ad Hitlerum; the best thought experiment for assessing military loyalty is not any Nazi but Robert E. Lee.)
In the end, to the extent that Felten reaches any conclusion, it’s the same as everyone else’s: Loyalty is a good thing as long as you don’t overdo it. That’s true, if not very helpful; you could say the same thing about putting ketchup on your fries. “Do the right thing, but don’t take it too far” is a pretty good one-sentence course in moral philosophy; everything else is just paraphrase.
Yet in seeking answers to these conundrums, Felten misses a larger truth. By emphasizing the concept of loyalty as duty — the wrenching conflicts that it can impose, and the great travails that people have undergone for its sake — he overlooks loyalty as choice, which in some ways can be much more revealing. Despite his grim talk of loyalty as “a matter of proving how much one will endure to remain true,” acts of loyalty are more often performed eagerly and bring great joy — most familiarly, perhaps, in the context of marriage (notwithstanding the author’s odd insistence that wedding vows “have become something of a joke . . . little more than gestures”), but also in religion, patriotism, and many other areas.
Loyalty is the free person’s virtue. Only in an open society can we choose to whom and to what we will give our loyalty; as Felten shows repeatedly, collectivists always strive to suppress allegiance to anything besides the collective (and of course loyalty to everyone is loyalty to no one). This is not just true of the nastier sort of collectivist; Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “I am of the opinion that all exclusive intimacies are to be avoided.” Like many other aspects of a free society, the spirit of loyalty comes with risks and downsides but is ultimately beneficial to everyone.
Moreover (and Felten, to his credit, recognizes this), loyalty makes capitalism possible (or vice versa, which amounts to the same thing). A Tocquevillian system of freely chosen loyalties amounts to a privatized welfare state, but when government takes on too many responsibilities, says Yuval Levin, “the attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance, and self-government.” Loyalty is about sharing, which makes it inherently capitalist.
Perhaps the most familiar example of the joyous side of loyalty is seen among sports fans. Felten mentions sports only once, briefly, and wrinkles his nose at the mean-spiritedness of fans who seek to humiliate their opponents. Here he misses the key point: Sports loyalty is not about winning; it’s about losing (and after several decades of sitting in the Baker Field stands rooting for Columbia, your reviewer can speak with authority on this subject). You earn a share in the team’s victories by remaining steadfast through its defeats; diehards hate nothing worse than a fair-weather fan. And since in almost every case, there will be more losing than winning (only one team can win the championship), being a sports fan is the purest (i.e., the least rational or calculated) form of loyalty there is. That may be why it is sometimes the strongest, and often the longest-lasting, loyalty in one’s life.
Loyalty, whether to family, school, church, or the Kansas City Royals, also satisfies a yearning to be part of something bigger — and choose to do so. If it is mandated from above, or if its recipient destroys the reason for choosing it, loyalty will wither. This explains why, until the recent stresses to Schengen and the euro, nationalism was on the decline in ever-collectivizing Europe (except at World Cup time — sports again). As national institutions are dismantled by immigrants at one end and eurocrats at the other — in neither case with anything approaching public enthusiasm — it’s hard to summon much loyalty to whatever shreds remain of Dutch or Italian uniqueness; yet being loyal to the EU would be like pledging eternal fealty to your condo’s managing board.
Within the areas he chooses to cover, Felten does a fine and often eloquent job of elucidating the many facets of loyalty and the many dilemmas it poses. Here and there he drops in an incongruous colloquialism (e.g. “bling,” or the meaningless “riff”), and his description of Sen. John Edwards’s mistress as a “nutty New Age squeeze,” while undeniably accurate, has the air of an elderly English teacher quoting hip-hop lyrics to show kids he isn’t stuffy (which of course has exactly the opposite effect).
Politically, it’s hard to get a fix on Felten. The very idea of extolling loyalty is conservative, and he unapologetically promotes many traditional values. He even, at one point, offers a defense of loyalty oaths. But this particular issue itself illustrates some of the book’s tendency toward on-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-ism. He later writes: “The Cold War hunt for domestic Communists may have done little to blunt Soviet ambitions, but it did succeed in tainting the very idea of loyalty, casting it as nothing but a reactionary cudgel.” Whenever Felten praises an old-fashioned value or practice, he immediately hastens to reassure the reader that he isn’t some kind of fanatic. By the end, he is almost holding loyalty at arm’s length, conceding its vexatious nature while defending it on grounds of necessity and tradition. He comes across like a historian who embarks upon a biography of a politician he admires and ends up struggling not to dislike him.
Still, the range of examples and illustrations is formidable. Within a single small-format page he cites Hesiod, Blake, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Wagner, and Spenser, and the result is not nearly as insufferable as that summary makes it sound. Now and then it becomes a bit too much of a quote-o-rama, but in most cases the parade of examples brings home insightfully the timelessness of the questions Felten raises, and struggles with manfully.
The admiration universally given to loyalty, in the abstract at least, and the uneasiness we feel about traitors, even when they are on our side, show what a deep-seated human need loyalty fulfills. Felten does not succeed in unraveling all the intricacies surrounding its implementation — no one could — but he does a good job of showing, sometimes without realizing it, how loyalty, in all its vexatiousness, is, in the end, the most conservative virtue.