Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

83. Loyalty

Note: This post is the eighty-third in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Back at the start of the year, I mentioned that as part of this ongoing series,
"I suspect that it will become necessary to try and formalize some of the precepts that make up the syndromes. For example, how can we define what it it means to 'Be Exclusive'? Based on what I've encountered in the series so far, it seems like game theory may well be the best medium in which to try and more precisely pin down the meaning of some of these precepts, although I'm certainly far from optimistic about how successful my attempt will be."

This week I want to look at a guardian precept, 'loyalty'.

What does it mean to be loyal? unhelpfully describes it as, 'the state or quality of being loyal' and goes on to suggest, 'faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc.'

Wikipedia is a little more helpful. On the topic of loyalty, it refers us back to 'The Philosophy of Loyalty' written by Josiah Royce in 1908. Per Royce, per Wikipedia,
"loyalty is "the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause". The cause has to be an objective one. It cannot be one's personal self. It is something external to oneself that one looks outward to the world to find, and that cannot be found within. It concerns not one's own person, but other people.1"

Another interesting Wikipedia reference comes from Stephen Nathanson, professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University. Says Wikpedia,
"Nathanson observes that loyalty is often directly equated to patriotism. He states, that this is, however, not actually the case, arguing that whilst patriots exhibit loyalty, it is not conversely the case that all loyal persons are patriots. He provides the example of a mercenary soldier, who exhibits loyalty to the people/country that pays him. Nathanson points to the difference in motivations between a loyal mercenary and a patriot. A mercenary may well be motivated by a sense of professionalism, or a belief in the sanctity of contracts. A patriot, in contrast, may be motivated by affection, concern, identification, and a willingness to sacrifice"

Note that in both cases, the mercenary and the soldier, Nathanson associates loyalty with the pursuit of something other than self-interest.

Say somebody lived a life in which their own self-interest always lined up with the interest of their Prime Minister. Over their life all of their decisions showed loyalty to the Prime Minister's interest. Can we say that this person was loyal? I think most people would say that it is uncertain because that person's loyalty was never tested.

What it does mean to test someone's loyalty? I'd argue that it means to create a situation where a person's self-interest (or loyalty to something/someone else) conflicts with the person/cause that they are loyal to. Failing this test of loyalty means that the person has put their own interest (or someone else's) ahead of the loyalty to the person doing the test.

The Wikipedia entry mentions perhaps the most famous loyalty test on record, God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his loyalty to God. In order to show that Abraham is loyal to God above all else, only a test involving the thing he values most in the world (his son) will suffice.

It seems that loyalty has two components:

1) The willingness not to put self-interest ahead of the interest to which one is loyal
2) The willingness not to put loyalty to something/someone else ahead of the interest to which one is loyal.

So loyalty has to involve both exclusiveness and altruism.

In game theory terms2, we can imagine loyalty as being defined as the difference between two scenarios:

In the first, person A, has a choice between two outcomes. Despite recognizing that outcome 2 is better for Person B, Person A prefers outcome 1.

e.g. Bob is the sister of Queen Alice. Bob chooses to sell military secrets to a hostile government even though he knows this will cause trouble for Alice.

In the second scenario, the loyalty Bob feels to Alice changes his decision such that he prefers not selling the military secrets, even though he knows he could personally come out ahead through the sale.

This isn't quite precise, because there are other ethics (such as sympathy) that might achieve the same effect. The difference between sympathy and loyalty is the exclusive nature of loyalty. While being sympathetic to everyone is regarded as one of the highest ideals in many ethical systems, being loyal to everyone is an oxymoron. This distinction is impossible to reflect in a two person scenario, but we could imagine a multi-person scenario in which Bob can choose just one person to be loyal to but might well be sympathetic towards everyone.

1 Interestingly, Wikipedia also quotes Royce making a very Jane Jacobs-esque statement on Commercial ethics, "[I]n the commercial world, honesty in business is a service, not merely and not mainly to the others who are parties to the single transaction in which at any one time this faithfulness is shown. The single act of business fidelity is an act of confidence of man in man upon which the whole fabric of business rests."

2This isn't a game theory situation per se, since Bob is just choosing without consideration for anyone else's choices, but what I mean is using the same sort of payout matrix that is common in game theory to show the decision making process for Bob.

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