The concepts of loyalty and honour are not much discussed by philosophers, although both concern emotions which are still active in contemporary society, and sometimes destructive. Separately or together, loyalty and honour can shape plots in novels, and although not discussed by philosophers, they are investigated by sociologists and anthropologists. I shall suggest why they are not discussed by philosophers and make a small contribution towards righting that omission. This week I shall discuss loyalty and next week honour.
In novels, the conflict between loyalty to a friend and respect for the law can create a good plot. The slogan 'My country right or wrong' asserts loyalty to a country, or patriotism, above other claims, even moral claims. And, as we all know, politicians assert loyalty to their party over other considerations. They will follow the instructions of their party and vote for policies which they know to be wrong. The recent Owen Paterson affair is an example of that. Wives frequently remain loyal to their husbands, even abusive husbands. So is loyalty always a morally good characteristic, and how do we come to acquire a feeling of loyalty?
In answer to the second half of my question, I can suggest that most of us are born into one kind of loyalty-creating context – namely the family. Members of a family tend to stick up for each other if challenged by some outside party. They may fight and disagree among themselves but outside threats lead to a closing of ranks. Whether this is a good or a bad thing I shall leave open but it is a psychological feature of most families. And, as I said, husbands and wives tend to defend each other even in the face of merited external criticism.
Loyalty can also be felt towards institutions. It is well-known that members of a regiment, or indeed of the armed forces more generally, will defend their comrades not only against an enemy but against hostile press coverage. This kind of loyalty is built up by an awareness of a long tradition, of having been trained together and of the knowledge that their comrades will support them come what may.
But it is not only the armed services or the police which exhibit this kind of loyalty. The professions do so as well. Medicine, notably among the professions, creates a strong sense of loyalty among its members. This has good consequences as it involves mutual support in a testing profession, and an awareness that the law or at least the general public will jump on you if you make a mistake. But, in all these cases, loyalty can lead to covering-up of dubious practices. If love is blind, so too is loyalty.
In medicine, then, and perhaps in some other occupations, loyalty provides support in furthering obviously good ends, such as health and well-being. But loyalty can also be a strong emotion in other causes, such as its presence in industrial disputes, especially in cases where it is thought that some member has been wrongly punished. Loyalty in such contexts can dominate other considerations, such as the interests of the occupation it is meant to be serving. Much has been written about the miners' strike and the appalling treatment of the miners ordered by Mrs Thatcher. Nevertheless, the mining industry never fully recovered from that strike.
I suggested at the start that loyalty and honour are not moral characteristics much discussed by philosophers. One reason is that philosophers tend to concentrate on moral qualities which are universal rather than particular, or which are based on reason rather than based on emotion. The philosophical argument might be that loyalty is concerned simply with the interests of specific groups. The important moral concerns, philosophers might argue, are directed at mankind as a whole, or at least have a much wider historical perspective. Hume was on to this. In his Treatise
, he writes that he gives the same moral approbation to the servant of Marcus Aurelius as to his own, and that a moral wrong in China is a moral wrong here. (His Chinese example doesn't work well at the moment.)
Whether readers are for or against the SNP, they should note that the SNP Government admits that it is very unfortunate that they have been landed for historical reasons with the term 'national'. Their core idea is not the type of loyalty which breeds nationalism; rather it is a desire for independence from Westminster, coupled with the belief that we could do better on our own. You are entitled to have a say on the matter of Scottish independence in the UK if you live in Scotland, regardless of the loyalties arising from your place of birth.
Large commercial enterprises attempt to hold on to their customers and even to their employees by playing the loyalty card. Literally so in the case of customers whose wallets may well be stuffed with the cards of assorted high street retailers. The cards offer small financial advantages, but their main purpose is to retain your custom.
Loyalty, I said, attaches to the particular, whether it be a person, a family, a profession or business, or a country. But loyalty has limits; it faces a real threat from an attack from more universal or at least wider values. This is best illustrated by the phenomenon of 'whistleblowing'. Although there is some debate about its scope, whistleblowing can helpfully be characterised as the activity of an employee within an organisation – public or private – who alerts a wider group such as shareholders or the general public to possible or actual setbacks to their interests. These setbacks might be caused by waste, corruption, fraud, or illegal profit-seeking. Because such employees are generally considered disloyal, it has been common to characterise them as traitors, weasels, squealers, or rats. 'Whistleblower' offers a more neutral way of referring to such people, and permits an inquiry into the proper limits of employee loyalty.
It is usually accepted that employees owe loyalty to their employing organisations. Such loyalty will include an expectation that employees will not harm their organisation's interests by revealing certain kinds of information to people outside it. If employees have grievances, they should be dealt with within the organisation. The case for whistleblowing then is driven either by the recognition that internal mechanisms have failed to deal adequately with employees' grievances or that the interests of outside bodies or people may be harmed by the organisation's policies. Hence, a wider group has a right to know of the costs that it faces.
On the other hand, blowing the whistle frequently creates significant disruption within an organisation – it may lose control of its affairs as it is subjected to external inquiries and constraints, or many within it who are little more than innocent bystanders may suffer from the repercussions of a possible outside inquiry. Whistleblowing is therefore seen as a significant act of disloyalty. But if the issues are of general importance, it can be justified by values which are wider than loyalty.
Whistleblowing can be really dangerous to the whistleblower. It is usually possible for a governing body to discover the identity of the whistleblower – even if the whistleblower attempts to remain anonymous. The unmasking of a whistleblower usually marks the end of their career. In films and perhaps sometimes in real life, it can lead to murder.
The most common type of whistleblowing takes place in hospitals and large commercial concerns. The government has introduced a measure of protection for whistleblowers but it is not clear how effective it is. In sum, the case of whistleblowing illustrates not only its importance but also the care and thought required before it is justifiable to override obligations of loyalty.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow