Understanding Loyalty

“Loyalty” is an interesting, but frequently misunderstood virtue.

While people can be loyal to each other, “loyalty” is still describing a set of priorities that one entity feels towards another. I can be loyal to you and you to me, but we’re still describing two relationships then. And I think both sides of the loyalty connection are misunderstood.

First, “loyalty” doesn’t mean “obedience” – though far too many think it does. Or, more accurately, they think that a lack of obedience means a lack of loyalty. I’m extremely loyal to my kids, but that hardly means I obey their every whim.

Loyalty doesn’t mean obedience. I don’t even think it means never inflicting harm, and I’ll tell you why. At the core, I think loyalty means that I place the long-term well-being of an entity on the same level of value as my own.

I’ll inflict short-term harm to myself for long-term gain. That means if I have to, I’ll do the same for those I’m loyal to. Kids are a good example – my kid doesn’t WANT to stand in the corner in a time-out for 15 minutes because she smacked her brother with a plastic dinosaur. Making her do that is inflicting a short-term harm, but it’s much better for her long-term well being that she grows up understanding the consequences of actions and not to harm others.

Loyalty is a long-term virtue. In the short term, not enough stuff even happens to really test loyalty, and I think loyalty untested is no loyalty at all. If I do a bunch of stuff that benefits you, but also benefits me, that’s not really loyalty. At some point, loyalty unquestioningly requires sacrifice.

Look, I don’t want to put my kid in the time-out either. She whines, and her eyes well up, and she gives me the most adorable puppy dog eyes you ever saw in your life and it breaks my heart. I’d much rather believe her obviously-insincere apology and let her get back to playing. But that’s not helping anyone either – me or her.

This isn’t really a post about parenting, but parenting is a good example. Just as we often confuse loyalty with obedience, we also often confuse it with “hierarchy.” As if only people of a lower position on some ladder could be loyal to those higher. But if anything, it’s the other way around.

A soldier’s loyalty to his general is going to be tested far less frequently than the general’s loyalty to his soldiers. Why? Because the soldier rarely has a choice. The soldier obeys orders whether he’s loyal or not, or bad things happen. The soldier gets paid. The soldier (mostly) has less information than the general. These factors all mean that the soldier’s loyalty isn’t really tested – a soldier who is loyal in his heart of hearts and a soldier who is a cold, self-centered mercenary will still mostly behave the same, because all the other factors align to make it so. But the general has a thousand choices a day to abandon his loyalty to his soldiers. If he is truly loyal to them, if he values their long-term well-being as his own, he’ll make very different choices than if he doesn’t, and he’ll be free to do so. He has far more choice.

This is why loyalty is a very finite resource. You can’t be loyal to a dozen different entities, because loyalty to one may conflict with loyalty to another. You have to be careful with loyalty; temper it heavily with principles and make sure that you understand that you must be loyal to yourself first (and yes, loyalty to yourself is different from selfishness).

But loyalty is like love. There are plenty of misunderstood versions, flimsy facsimiles, or even malicious imitations of it, but it’s worth cultivating the real thing.

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