I get really disappointed when I go to buy cigarettes and the place does not carry Nat Shermans. Why don’t I just get the American Spirits? They are equally expensive and presumptuous about their quality, just as additive free, and just as harmful. This is one example of (hopefully few) brand loyalties that I uphold, and I’m only bringing it up to segue into the more general theme of loyalty.
This week’s Philosophy Talk–a radio show hosted by two Stanford University professors–happened to focus on loyalty, and it led me to a critical examination of a term that for as long as I have spoken English has carried positive connotations.
Philosophers seem to frown upon it, primarily because they view it as an irrational (or arational, depending on who you talk to) sentiment. “Tribal” was the disvaluing adjective used in the talk show. There was general agreement that most of the time loyalties are blind, have weak bases, or are simply irrational, but we are psychologically disposed to have them, so too bad. Try and imagine a person who has no loyalties: you can’t. Loyalty to country, to friend, to sports teams, to spouse, etc–whether accidental, arbitrarily chosen, or thoroughly evaluated, we all have some. What I wonder about is whether they are, actually, always irrational.
Patriotism can be silly and often dangerous, but is it irrational? Loyalty to sport teams can be pointless, but irrational? I don’t know, these are not loyalties I subscribe to.
Loyalties can be irrational from a utilitarian perspective, for example: if you had a choice between saving the life of your closest friend or a very prominent scientist who would one day find the cure for cancer, whose life would you save? If you would choose the former, then you are operating under the spell of loyalty. Or would you save the scientist and let your friend die? If so, explain your reasoning to me please (and hopefully you’re not one of my friends). Can the rationality of our decisions be quantified based on utilitarian principles, or is it possible that there is rationality in saving your unemployed friend over the prolific scientist?
To paraphrase some of the discussion on the show, it’s hard to live life without giving some special credence to relationships that play major roles in your life. Special care and concern for those who have special relationships to you is not irrational–having emotions is not irrational (though the content of many emotions can be, but that’s a different matter). Through loyalties we form identities and collectivities, and that’s empowering. Our individual actions “have more reach” due to loyalty, thinks one of the Stanford guys.
But even if we accept that some loyalties can be rational and beneficial, what about conflicting loyalties? A certain philosopher assures us that this is no issue, because it’s also completely rational to break loyalties–everything is conditional. So I could be loyal to Nat Shermans but then find another cigarette brand that at another point appeals to me more. This seems to be counterintuitive to the essence of loyalty though: if we make it a limited, conditional, and shifty sentiment, is it still loyalty or has it become something else entirely? The whole point of being loyal is a dedicated devotion, no questions asked, otherwise…oof, I’m starting to get convinced that maybe loyalties are not rational.
The Stanford guys sort of agreed that if we had less opportunities that required our loyalty, we would be better off. This means that it would be a good thing to learn to get by without loyalties, though the feasibility of this is questionable. I liked how the guest speaker (Troy del Amour) explained it: loyalties are self-forming activities, but they are not virtues. On the contrary, they are much more akin to vices–irrational yet inevitable. So be careful and choose the important loyalties if you are going to have them (if you don’t know what would constitute an important loyalty, I will argue right off the bat that it would not be patriotism and/or marriage). But seriously, I hope you achieved some clarity from this ramble. All it did for me was bring me right back to demanding Nat Shermans over any other tobacco brand.