Loyalty is [not] a Virtue

Loyalty

On the surface, loyalty denotes a keen sense of integrity and significance of self-sacrificing commitment. There is no doubt that when pursued in respect to efforts that serve to elevate authentic virtue, loyalty delivers positive intrinsic returns and social repute. But, what is the result of ill-placed loyalty? When can an ethically intended practice become unethical?

Loyalty is expressed in various ways. “Loyal” describes relationships to people, commitments, and organizations. We earn rewards with a loyalty card, devote loyalty to a cause, and proclaim the unwavering commitment of loyalty. We express it through everything from marriage vows to sports jerseys, supermarkets to church memberships. We celebrate loyalty with rewarded airline miles, years of service to an organization, pledging our allegiance to a country, and every time we attend a wedding anniversary party. Irrespective of where our loyalties lie, we regard loyalty as a moral virtue.

In attempt to define loyalty as virtuous, I sought various resources and portions of scripture. Here is what I found describing virtue.

Virtue

  • Defined by Merriam-Webster as, a: conformity to a standard of right, b: a particular moral excellence.
  • Acclaimed by Paul as “things” possessing truth, nobility, justice, purity, loveliness, and of good report; being praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
  • Directed by Peter to be diligently added to faith, along with knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love (1 Peter 1:5-7).
  • May include the fruits of the Spirit as described by Paul, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a)
  • Depicted by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount as poor in spirit, mourning, a desire for justice, meekness, humility, peacemaking, and compassion (Matthew 5:1-12)
  • Described by one evangelical writer as, “a trait or disposition of character that leads to good behavior” (Wellman, 2015).
  • Identified by the Vatican in Catechism of the Catholic Church as, ”a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”

What stands out? Yep, loyalty is not identified as a virtue. Several other identifiable moral practices are noted, but loyalty did not make the cut. We could debate as to why. We could argue that perseverance denotes the same character as loyalty- but then realize that loyalty is simply an offshoot of perseverance. Perhaps loyalty is an act secondary to the primary traits of virtue. At times, loyalty can be applied to a focus undeserving of our efforts. Or maybe, loyalty (when continued for the sake of commitment to loyalty) can obligate a person to disregard best practice or moral regard to sound judgment.

Here, it is good to note that the biblical descriptions of virtue represent qualities to notice, consider, seek, and mimic. In this regard, scripture seems to indicate that virtue serves as a moral compass on the trajectory to True North. Once we vow loyalty to any entity, political party, sect, denomination, Country, etc. – we are agreeing to move forward in that relationship in regard to the goals and purpose of that particular program. We either submit Godly traits to a cause likely to pervert our moral endeavor, or we succumb to unjust acts in the name of a higher standard- misrepresenting that standard. In short, we justify unethical conduct by proclaiming righteous loyalty.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers this; Loyalty denotes, “a perseverance in an association to which a person has become intrinsically committed as a matter of his or her identity.” We can begin to understand that when we pledge loyalty to anyone or thing beyond God, the stakes of our commitment can quickly become problematic.

It is no wonder that so many churches, politicians, financial groups, organizations, and individuals ask for our loyalty. They know once they have our loyalty (membership, pledge, vote, contract), we will say or do anything to refrain from a perceived betrayal or being regarded as disloyal or unfaithful. They expect outward expressions of our loyalty while prostituting our intrinsic virtue. This is in stark contrast to an intrinsically expressed manifestation of virtue stemming from the direction of the Holy Spirit. 

Be sure to understand that we should not refrain from loyalty. As previously suggested, loyalty, when derived intrinsically in alignment with the Holy Spirit, promotes moral endurance. When we aim to pursue a commitment, it should be in alignment with shared virtue, without force of hand, and should ultimately draw us closer to God. This is why the covenant of marriage includes God as an equal partner. When we strive to pursue commitment to a spouse without God, we cannot help but be unequally yoked since our unchecked intrinsic values often do not remain the same for long (even if they matched or at least complimented each other at the time we said our vows). If both partners’ values align with The Holy Spirit, the chances of a successful marriage increases substantially. It is much easier to maintain loyalty when each party shares a trajectory.

When we attempt loyalty to institutions that demand performance, although it may serve to benefit both parties, we are setting ourselves up for all but guaranteed failure. Our commitment breeds a hemorrhaging of misplaced virtue, especially when the alternate party ransoms their performance for a measure of ours. Once our commitment of loyalty comes into question, we then suffer cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance, coined by Psychologist Leon Festinger, occurs in response to a discrepancy of internal consistency. Our intrinsic motivation to maintain behavior that reflects our values becomes provoked when we are asked to perform to an expectation in contrast with our beliefs. To relieve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we are forced to disregard or realign allegiance. Given we are materialistic beings, it is likely we will choose to perform for immediate social praise when reminded of our duty to a vow of loyalty- no matter that in our effort to maintain loyalty, we disregard authentic and higher-order virtue. And just like that, we spend years at a church that recognizes attendance while dismissing social welfare to immigrants; we pay fees to a credit card that rewards airline miles, we reelect a President who disregards the very core of the teachings Christ mandated as a prerequisite to a full and forgiven life.

There is chilling vulnerability in the statement, “when an organization wants you to do right, it asks for your integrity; when it wants you to do wrong, it demands your loyalty” (Stanford.edu).  When our loyalty to loyalty exceeds loyalty to holy virtue, we compromise our relationship with the One from whom “good, virtue” originates. A life of authentic faith cannot be obtained through a commitment or loyalty to anyone or thing outside of the One who created us and knows us best. It is through our commitment to higher-order faith we are provided the tenacity to make good on loyalties worth pursuing.

There is no virtue in loyalty to unhealthy commitments that ultimately mock the intended purpose of righteous action. The question is, will we stand up for moral virtue when a “trusted” entity threatens to question where our loyalties lie. I pray we choose to reflect Christ- even at the momentary cost of social infraction.

Serenity Prayer

God, give me the grace to accept with serenity

The things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

Which should be changed,

And the Wisdom to distinguish

The one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen


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