Loyalty gets a bad wrap today amongst those who fancy themselves leftists. It sounds old-world, it is associated with Monarchism and maintaining the status quo at all costs. And it’s true that loyalty is a conservative value – if you want to keep things the same and maintain existing categories, it’s important not to turn on your friends or have your friends turn on you every time you might do something that people think is wrong.
It’s easy to see the downsides of loyalty – when people are supported because of who they are rather than what they say, that looks like turning off our critical faculties. And certainly instances where there has been too much loyalty have been a major cause of stagnation in society, and this isn’t really good for anybody.
But, if you don’t have enough loyalty, you are likely to live in a world which is very unstable. Especially if you exist in social situations where categories are constantly being blurred and shifted, you could always do or say something which isn’t up to date with the consensus. And if the actions of people are interpreted only on the basis of their immediate content, (i.e. treating everyone “equally”), good people can quickly be excluded. This is bad for everybody, both because some amount of stability is required for flourishing, and also because it might result in people who could continue to contribute positively to a group being excluded.
Being loyal to someone means interpreting their actions not only immediately, but in the context of their character – something you know because you’ve known them over time. I think most of us recognize that people have characters, and that not everything they do manifests their main personality traits. And recognizing this means, strangely, not treating everyone equally – but treating people as the kinds of things which have histories and futures. And we don’t know the history or future of people we don’t know – so there is no use being loyal towards them.
The converse of loyalty, I’m not sure it has a name, but it would be something like deciding to generally ignore, not follow, and even oppose the actions of people who you have judged to be of poor character. There is always the danger that your judgement is wrong, but that isn’t an excuse not to make one. Having loyalty to the wrong people will pull you down, will prevent you from flourishing. And, will probably prevent them from flourishing as well – because your loyalty towards their bad character is supporting it. If someone of bad character is abandoned by their friends, they might take this as a cue to change their character. People can transform themselves, and enabling the indefinite delay of this is not a positive thing for anyone.
We sometimes say “when things go wrong, then you find out who your real friends are”. And, normally we might think of this in terms of the people who “really care about you”. But this might be wrong – maybe the loyalty that is expressed in crisis situations is not a matter of “care”, but a judgement of character and an act of mutual self-preservation. Certainly care can be manifest, but it might be a mistake to take it as the ground level motivation for the expression of loyalty.