Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue

The term "loyalty" often carries with it the connotation that it is unconditional. For this reason, loyalty is an overrated and sometimes dangerous virtue.

Loyalty is better viewed as a phenomenon of other traits and virtues: trustworthiness, empathy for fellow humans, investing in a relationship in good times and bad, variations of the golden rule, etc. These are constitutive virtues of loyalty. For example, fidelity is its own virtue. You should be faithful in a relationship. To describe this concept, I say use the word "fidelity" and not "loyalty."

The Bush Administration was criticized for prizing loyalty over competence. You had a place at the table so long as you were strongly loyal to the President. Ron Suskind wrote a book about Paul O'Neill and the Bush administration titled The Price of Loyalty which documented the uncurious and unquestioning habits of a loyal cabinet.

Nor should loyalty trump independent moral judgment. I do not believe in unconditional love or sticking with someone through thick and thin to an indefinite point. If my brother started raping and murdering people, I would call the police.

Bottom Line: Better to employ more precise words to describe the positive virtues in a person than the broad and potentially dangerous "loyal."

(thanks Dave Jilk, Ben Abram, and Cal Newport for their feedback on this idea.)


I first started thinking about "overrated virtues" when I read Alec Baldwin tell Vanity Fair that the most overrated virtue is patience.

15 comments on “Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue
  • I read Suskind’s book and was shocked. I was young back then and believed that most people in charge of the country would inevitably do “the right thing.”

    Like I said, I was young.

    But you’re right, this is the type of thing that gets people into trouble for protecting a friend or family member after they’ve done something wrong.

  • One aspect I think you’re missing is that loyalty is usually mutual. Once one side breaks their loyalty the other is like to also.

    Also if someone appears to be disloyal it can be difficult for others to place trust in that person.

    Methinks you’re focusing too much on the word itself and not the action that word is meant to represent.

  • I think most virtues, followed to the extreme, are dangerous. And many of these virtues can also be described with other words as well. Patience and trustworthiness can often go hand in hand. Great post, it’s got me thinking!

  • Blind loyalty is a virtue and a necessity in mafia families and in prison, which is where Bush and Cheney would be sitting now if the rule of law actually had been enforced in the United States during their administration.

    We can be grateful that Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill had more loyalty to the US Constitution than to the Executive Branch of government, unlike the “Mayberry Machiavellis” of the White House staff for whom “every problem had a simple solution”.

    As one of the Amazon reviewers of Suskind’s book said, “…there [was] no room for intellectual debates, exchange of information, or even consensus building.”

    Political considerations reign supreme when a loyalist political arm takes the place of a policy apparatus.

    Bush and Cheney themselves had no loyalty to any moral principles in government, and waged war in Iraq because war is a profitable business, especially for Halliburton, KBR, and their other partners in government subsidized international crime.

    Those teabagger, birther, and other lunatic conspiracy theorists who keep howling that Obama is setting up a fascist state have no loyalty to reality, but if fascism is essentially political rule by corporations, then the US has been fascist for quite a while now.

    President Eisenhower warned us to beware of the military-industrial complex.

    Too late.

    The Pentagon and industry had already joined in holy matrimony, and their only fidelity is to profits.

  • Disagree that Iraq was about making money for business partners. It was in
    pursuit of genuine ideals about democracy. Tactically a disaster, and even
    those "democracy" ideals can be questioned — but the Halliburton stuff is
    way overblown.

  • I don’t believe Bush and Cheney have any genuine democratic ideals.

    For example, while Bush was lecturing the world about “spreading democracy”, he and his family maintained their longtime cordial personal friendship with the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the rulers of a repressive medieval monarchy not known for its friendliness to human rights.

    As for Halliburton, Rep. Henry Waxman told it like it is when he said: “Halliburton gouged the taxpayer, government auditors caught the company red-handed, yet the Pentagon ignored the auditors and paid Halliburton hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge bonus.”

  • I’m curious what you mean by unconditional love. I agree with you to the extent that there exist possibilities that could make me stop loving anyone, however given the person’s personality, they represent such small probabilities that I effectively love some people without condition. Or perhaps better put, I love some people without pre-condition. I love them not for what they do, but who they are. What I mean when I say I unconditionally love someon “within the realm of choices I can anticipate you making, nothing you can do will make me stop loving you.” I think when a parent says “I love you unconditionally” they probably mean it the most; and of course it’s an important idea to effectively communicate to children, that no matter what they do within the range of things they can do (grades, athletic/social success, behavior) their parents will love them for their mistakes and successes.

  • To Vince Williams (and maybe a possible Ben Casnocha future blog topic): as soon as the words “teabagger” or “birther” come out, you’ve poisoned your own well. Not pointing out whether the issue itself is relevant or correct, but the moment a person points to the most virulent debates available in an only tangentially-related point to the topic at hand, people stop listening, unless they agree. The perfect echo chamber.

    The future blog post: how we get caught in using short-hand emotional topics instead of detailed analysis.

  • Kevin Cassidy, there’s not room in the comments for detailed analysis.

    Short-hand emotion is all I have to work with.

    When Ben tossed in a pointer to remarks on overrated virtues from Alec Baldwin(!) at Vanity Fair, I figured all was fair tangential game.

    I take the fact that you’ve responded to my short-hand emotional topics as proof that by your own logic you are part of my echo chamber.

    Thank you for your attention.;-)

  • I have a slightly different take.

    Loyalty – or for that matter any virtue, even when taken to extremes will never be bad so long as it remains a genuine virtue and no more. Extreme Loyalty is and will be Loyalty, perhaps a more intense commitment which is not bad at all. Loyalty should not be taken to mean “my country, right or wrong” attitude even as leaders tend to overshoot or veer away. Loyalist doesn’t merely kowtow; he can’t resist setting course for a leader that tends to stray and give him direction as well, which a clumsy toady never risks for fear of rebuttal.

    That said, the true test of a loyalist is his fearless readiness to risk his personal comfort zone in the larger interest of his team, cult or even nation.

    What is really bad is the pattern of servile adulation getting compensated with undue advantage that more deserving but non-fawning compatriots fail to receive. It is dangerous when grovel gets amply recognized at the expense of well meaning nonconformists that refuse to toe the (wrong) line.

  • I echo what Jonathon said above…its very much about balance in virutes from a pragmatic utilitarian level.

    I’m reminded of Aristotle’s archimedian point by both Baldwin and your analysis. I’m not sure if it applies to all virtues, but from a pragmatic perspective–it seems to make sense.

    I think what balance you strike is probably a function of the depth of relationship to the people involved and if you find your purpose in more utilitarian or empathy based ethics.

    This makes me wonder how virtues in groups might work together to balance each other. For instance, when you deal with 3 or more virtues to make a decision.

    Interesting investigations…

  • I think loyalty is always looking out for the interests of a friend, it doesnt mean you become a slave to their requests and never contest their opinions. It means when the shit hits the fan you might not go down with the ship but you may throw a life preserver when everyone else wants them to drown.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *