Don't talk about loyalty

Conor’s suspicions towards Bill Bennett are sound. Bennett seems to think that he’s criticizing Matt Latimore for disloyalty, but I suspect Bennett’s real beef is with Latimore’s opportunism. I can see the appeal of the concept of loyalty to an Aristotelian like Bennett. It has the suggestion of real community and its entailed virtues and obligations, but the problem with invoking it as a general principle is that it doesn’t function very well as one. I don’t want to slight loyalty . Anybody who’s found himself in a real or metaphorical foxhole has felt what is good about loyalty. Loyalty’s great when it’s to you and yours. But things get dicey when you invoke loyalty from without the group that the person in question is supposed to be loyal to. Then, all of a sudden, the concept of loyalty looks pretty hobbled, incomplete. Then you’re suddenly arguing whether the group in question – its principles, its actions – is praiseworthy according to terms more abstract than loyalty, and then the loyalty of its members comes under scrutiny according to these more abstract terms. If the group is not just in what it does, then loyalty to it is taken to be a vice. And whether the Bush White House, as a group, was just and thus worthy of loyalty according to the judgment of people beyond it, is – in our intellectual and political environment – so freaking contested that the concept of loyalty is just a basket of begged questions. If somebody saw something really bad from within the Administration, of course we would be justified in subordinating loyalty to more abstract values, even if his coworkers – which who cares what they think, malfeasors – might feel the sting of betrayal.

Conor’s on sounder footing than Will Wilson, also, in his general preference for loyalty to an idea over loyalty to a person, but mainly because the idea, as an idea, travels more nimbly on the terrain on which it will be interrogated by people with a reasonable expectation of grounds more general than loyalty itself. A person loyal to an idea is likely to have tested that idea against other ideas. A person loyal to a person? Depends on the person, and that “depends” depends on a bunch of things more general than loyalty. Wilson objects to the abstractness of Conor’s type of loyalty. It strikes him as un-conservative. And in truth there is something wanting in the idea of loyalty to an idea, as against the thick and gritty loyalty among people doing stuff and making enemies together. But unless the ethical codes that germinate within every sort of lifeworld and which prescribe group loyalties are unsassailable as such, then loyalty – while it will inspire potent admiration within confined circles of assessment, among friends, you might say – is always going be a deeply subordinate virtue, the sort of thing that looks a lot lovelier, and is a lot easier to appreciate, when strangers aren’t talking about it in public, invoking it as a general principle, forcing it to do things it doesn’t want to do.