Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Limits of Loyalty

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College

I’ve often heard students of mine say things like, “you’ve got to support your family no matter what” or “friends have got to stick together no matter what.” When I hear statements like this in class, I can’t help being impressed by how important the idea of loyalty to friends and family is among the members of the Millennial Generation. I certainly don’t recall members of my own generation—Generation X, if you must know—being all that loyal to anything other than the idea to have a good time in life. So, on one level, I’m greatly pleased that a virtue as important as loyalty is making a comeback in American society.

However, as a teacher of ethics, I find myself somewhat concerned about the “no matter what” clause that Millennials often attach to their commitments of loyalty. As worthy a virtue as loyalty is, I can’t help but believe that this virtue could never be absolute in the real world. There’s got to be some natural limits to our loyalty, or the fidelity that we show those we care about becomes a kind of blind fanaticism.

So when ought our commitment to support our friends and family members come to an end? I’m inclined to agree with both Aristotle and Cicero that an intimate relationship of any kind must be terminated if the other party involved turns morally bad or wicked—that is, if they begin to act in such a way that they are causing harm to themselves or to other people.

Let’s begin with the issue of harm to others, since that’s less controversial. Let’s imagine a friend that you’ve had since childhood suddenly becomes obsessed with money and has developed a scheme to rob UPS trucks of their packages when they are left unattended by their drivers. Your friend has become quite successful at this and has managed to make thousands of dollars from his crimes. He confides in you about his activities one night. What should you do?

 Assuming that you yourself have any moral standards, the answer would be that you should attempt to convince him that what he is doing is wrong and try to persuade him that, at the very least, he has to stop his criminal activities. But what if he chooses not to? I think at that point, were you to continue to remain loyal to your friend, you would be complicit in his crimes. Instead, you’ve got to tell him that, unless he stops what he’s doing immediately, you can no longer continue to see him or be his friend. Any obligations of loyalty that you have towards your friend subsequently would come to an end, until such time that you friend decides to change his ways.

This is a very dramatic example, of course, but I think that the principle holds in less dramatic ones as well. If your friend was a bully, a bigot, a chronic liar, a cheat, a manipulator—if he repeatedly engaged, in other words, in activities that caused harm to others, especially innocent others—then you would likewise have no choice but to end your friendship.

The example of self-harm is a bit more problematic, but I think that the principle I’ve laid out holds here as well. Image that you have a friend who has developed a serious substance abuse problem. His behavior is causing him to neglect his job and his responsibilities to his family. You try taking to him about his issues, but he refuses to even acknowledge that he has a problem. So what do you do at that point?

Certainly, there are those who would argue that it’s wrong to abandon a friend in a time of crisis like this one—that you ought to continue to stand by him and remain loyal for as long as he needs you. But I think that this just makes you complicit in his act of self-destruction. The right thing to do in a case like this is to try as much as possible to get your friend to change, but, when it becomes evident that he has no intention of doing so, you have to put an end to your friendship for the sake of your friend. And any loyalty that you have towards him must be suspended until he agrees to do something about his problem.

The examples I’ve used above involve friends, but what I’ve stated about the limits of loyalty apply to family as well. If a family member—a parent, a sibling, or a child—becomes to engage in activities that cause harm to themselves or others, I think that we have a moral obligation to terminate our relationship with these family members in order to help them become morally responsible individuals again. To think otherwise would be to imply that family relationships trump all moral duties and obligations that we have in life, and this is simply not true.

I also think that if we really care about people—whether they are family, friends, or less intimate acquaintances—we would be as concerned about their moral welfare as we are for their physical, financial or social welfare. And the closer individuals are to us, the greater, I believe, are our obligations to care for their moral well-being. In this sense, we should have even higher moral standards for our close family members and friends than we do for other members of society…not because we want to treat them harder than we do others, but because we care about them even more.

I know that there are those who would reject the position that I’ve laid out on the limits of loyalty. Some would probably argue that I am being overly ridged and moralistic and that no one could adopt the kinds of moral standards towards family and friends that I’ve argued for here. If that’s the case, feel free to challenge what I’ve said in this piece. But consider first how you would respond if you discovered that a friend or family member was involved in the kinds of situations that I’ve described above. And then reflect on whether the continuation of your absolute loyalty towards these individuals—supporting them “no matter what”—would be better or worse for them than the kind of tough love that I’ve argued for.