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.)

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

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