Between Loyalties and Ideals

Emrys Westacott

A moral dilemma

Two years ago I was teaching an ethics course and I asked the students to describe some moral dilemmas they had recently found themselves in. One student told the class about a dilemma that had arisen for her here at Alfred, and what she said provoked a fiery discussion that kept me thinking for a long time afterwards. I thought I would begin today by presenting a slight variation on that dilemma, using it as a springboard for a few reflections on the sort of moral pressures that people often feel when they are establishing themselves in a new community.

So, imagine. It's a dark and stormy night--the night before an important exam. Your roommate and several other people in your dorm will also be taking the exam, and at around nine in the evening they blow into your room happily cackling over their success in downloading the multiple choice section of the exam that the professor will be using. They invite you to look over it with them.

Naturally, you refuse. You gather up your books, give your roommate a little lecture about how crime doesn't pay, and take yourself off to the library to burn the midnight oil there. After three more hours of honest study you return to your room. You get into your pajamas, clean your teeth, polish your halo, offer up a brief prayer on behalf of miserable sinners everywhere, get into bed, and enjoy the untroubled sleep of the righteous.

The next day, the exam takes place, but the professor gets wind of the cheating that has gone on. She decides to try to get to the to bottom of things, and interviews members of the class individually. Your turn comes and you're asked if you know which students cheated. What should you do?

Honesty - a modern ideal

Many of you are probably thinking: Well, I know what he's going to say. He's obviously going to say that you should tell the truth. Perhaps you assume I'll say this out of professional solidarity with the professor. But remember, all professors were students once, back in the days before ipods, before PowerPoint, before cell phones and CDs, before the steam engine and the printing press, when cheating on an exam meant carving crib notes on a bone and hiding it under your toga. Or maybe you just assume that, like most people, I value honesty and truthfulness. After all, telling the truth is a moral ideal that has great prestige in our culture. The ninth commandment says "Thou shalt not bear false witness". Children are warned against the tangled webs they weave when first they practice to deceive. George Washington, according to the legend, said that he could not tell a lie--and no president since has felt able to tell one either. Nor any vice president. Nor any attorney general.

It’s worth noting that truthfulness has not always been considered so important. Think about the hero of Homer's Odyssey. Like many other heroes of folk literature and legend, Odysseus is praised not for being honest but for being crafty, for getting results through lies and deception. Odysseus, we can safely assume, would have been one of those who cheated on the exam. But in our culture, today, honesty is widely viewed as a cardinal virtue. Sometimes, in an ethics class, I ask students: which moral qualities would you most like to see in your children? Almost always, the first one they mention is honesty—ahead, of courage, or compassion, generosity or kindness, modesty, self-control, or even wisdom.

So that is one horn of the dilemma. We are taught from infancy that truthfulness is good. It is an ideal inculcated in us that we cannot help but respect.

What, then, is the other horn of the dilemma? In the situation I've described, what would pull you in the other direction? The answer, I suggest, is loyalty—the sense that you ought to stand by the group to which you belong. This sense of loyalty is an peculiar phenomenon. Let’s look at it more closely.

Loyalty - a primitive virtue

There are various kinds of loyalty. You can be loyal to a particular person, to a baseball team, to your home town, your employer, your country. What we’re talking about here, though, is loyalty to a group—specifically, to a group of peers that you live among and are in continuous contact with. I think a sense of loyalty of this sort is quite likely the origin of what we call moral feelings. To put it another way, loyalty is a primitive virtue. In saying this, I don't mean to imply that loyalty would or should only be valued by unsophisticated people. Not at all. I’m only suggesting that loyalty is a quality you’d expect to find praised early on in the moral development of human beings. A sense of loyalty is probably one of the earliest and most basic moral feelings.

Let me explain a little more why I think this—why I think a sense of loyalty is foundational to morality. Ask yourself this question: How did human beings ever come to look at things from a moral point of view? This is a genuinely profound question. How did we ever start praising and blaming, rewarding and punishing, calling some actions right and some actions wrong, describing some people as good and others as bad? This is something we assume animals don't do. They don't look at the world through a moral lens. That's why, as the poet Tennyson famously said, "nature is red in tooth and claw." Animals aren't constrained by moral considerations. They do whatever they have to do to survive. This is the lesson that the dog Buck learns quickly in Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

Now humans can sometimes revert to that condition, but they do so only under extreme and unusual circumstances, such as a complete breakdown of political authority. Under normal circumstances, we temper self-interest with moral restraint. Go back to our opening scenario. Your fellow students whom you are thinking of reporting maybe cheats, but they still operate within moral limits.. OK, they might be willing to hack into a computer to steal the exam ahead of time; but they wouldn't slit the security guard's throat to get hold of it. This is Alfred, not Cornell!

So—to return to my question--how did human beings first start thinking in moral terms and having moral feelings? Many explanations have been put forward. The oldest one is the religious account, according to which humans were created by God with an inborn moral nature, ready to receive a set of moral rules handed down through intermediaries like Moses, Jesus, or Mohammad. These great ethical teachers enjoy some sort of privileged access to God's will, and they communicate what they learn to the rest of us. This view held sway for millennia and it's still accepted by many. From a scientific or scholarly point of view, of course, it's problematic since it appeals to the supernatural, God being a supernatural entity.

Another well-known theory is that morality emerged out of what is called a “social contract”. Originally, human beings lived like animals in a so-called "state of nature" where there were no rules, no laws, no moral expectations, no rights, duties or obligations. The good news about the state of nature is that you enjoy absolute freedom. You can do whatever you want. You can bash your neighbors head in and steal his zucchini and you won't be arrested, or tried, or punished; nor will you feel any sort of guilt or shame or remorse. (You'll just be viewed as a bit nuts for stealing something as boring as zucchini, which at this time of year people are giving away.)

But the bad news about the state of nature is that you can't trust anyone; you can't make any long term plans; and you live in continual fear of being robbed, or raped, or killed, or having zucchini stuffed in your mailbox. So, to get out of this unpleasant situation, people come together and make an agreement with one another. They lay down certain rules, and they give some king, or governing body, the power to enforce these rules. Eventually, the rules become internalized and people feel uncomfortable when they break them.

So that's two theories about the origin of morality: the religious theory and the social contract theory. Another, more recent theory, is that morality emerges out of the relationship between mother and child. A mother cares for her child instinctively, and this instinct is part of nature. But it lays down the pattern for other caring relationships. Morality is really all about caring, about transcending your self-interest and concerning yourself with the well-being of others. Initially, people cared only about those very close to them, mainly their own kin. Gradually, as society grew more complex, this concern for others extended outwards to take in a wider circle of acquaintances. A noteworthy feature of this view is that it doesn't understand morality as a set of rules that have to be obeyed or applied like the Ten Commandments. Rather, the heart of moral life lies in establishing and participating in caring relationships. A number of important feminist thinkers have explored this way of thinking.

Alongside these ideas about caring, an evolutionary account of morality has become increasingly popular. For a long time, morality was viewed as something unnatural, or even anti-natural, a sort of harness that kept the beast within each of us under control. But on an evolutionary view, morality is seen, instead, as something perfectly natural, evolving out of the obvious fact that human beings are social beings, just like the other primates. We have to cooperate with one another to survive. Groups where cooperation worked well flourished; groups that didn't cooperate well died out. So over time, groups where the individual members began to develop feelings of obligation and responsibility, trust and concern towards one another would do well in the survival stakes. In other words, the development of moral feelings gave a group evolutionary advantages. Conversely, anti-social attitudes would be disadvantageous. Thus people with anti-social attitudes were selected out—or they joined fraternities. (It's interesting, in this context, to note the title of the classic frat flick—"Animal House".)

I hope this makes it clearer what I mean when I say that loyalty is a primitive virtue. The loyalty impulse has its roots in the fact that we are social beings. In fact you could reasonably describe us as pack animals. We belong to a pack, work in a pack, identify with the pack, depend on the pack—and so, of course, we defend ourselves as a pack.

But here is where things get complicated—and interesting. If you're a wolf belonging to a pack, your loyalty profile is pretty simple. To be sure, if you're a male you'll scrap occasionally for mating privileges. But apart from that, you have a single uncomplicated loyalty: to the pack.

Human beings, on the other hand, typically have a much more complex set of loyalties. In earlier times or in certain traditional societies these nested or overlapping loyalties might still be relatively few and clearly ordered: family, clan, village, tribe--that probably covers it. But in a complex modern society, you quickly find yourself deep in a forest of loyalty obligations: to your family, your friends, your colleagues, your school, your sports team, your employer, your town, your country, your sex, your race, your ethnic group, your political party, your church. And these loyalties can conflict with one another. They can also conflict with other moral ideals and commitments—like the ideal of truthfulness.

The nature of moral dilemmas

This is how I would analyze the moral dilemma I described earlier. You are asked by your professor for details regarding the cheating practiced by your fellow students. This produces a conflict between loyalty to your peers and loyalty to the institution as represented by the professor. It also produces a more acute conflict between loyalty to your peer group and your commitment to moral ideals like honesty and truthfulness.

It's fairly easy to think of other dilemmas that could be analyzed along the same lines. Suppose a member of your peer group has injured someone while driving drunk and you are being interviewed by the police. Would you tell the truth if you knew this might land them in prison? What if the person was a member of your family? Should this make any difference? Or suppose you are on a sports team and learn that several members of the team are using performance-enhancing drugs. Would you report this to anyone in authority? In each case I think you have a tug of war between a loyalty claim and some ideal.

Now as I've already suggested, the claims on one's loyalty can be very powerful. In many contexts they constitute an almost absolute taboo. Harry Potter may hate Draco Malfoy's guts; and Malfoy may be working for Voldemort. But you can still be pretty certain of one thing: Harry will never tell tales about Malfoy to the Hogwarts teachers, at least not unless something really important is at stake, like the need to save the world from absolute evil. Indeed, we'd be shocked if he did, because, like J.K. Rowling, we're all familiar with the loyalty code that says students must close ranks before teachers. If you notice, a similar code requires teachers to avoid criticizing one another in front of students, although we prefer to call breaches of this code "unprofessional conduct". It makes the code seem more dignified, less primitive.

Loyalties and ideals pull on us in different ways. Loyalty codes bind us with steel bonds. Think of how readily particular groups— police officers, soldiers, doctors, prisoners—just like students or teachers, will close ranks to protect their own against accusations of wrongdoing. Loyalty is visceral rather than intellectual. Ideals, by contrast, are somewhat abstract. Loyalty can be almost instinctual: ideals are more the product of reflection. We have hard-wired into us a propensity to identify with and protect the group we belong to. But we aren't hard-wired to cherish and defend such things as equal opportunity, the golden rule, respect for the truth, or freedom of speech. These values haven't been selected in by evolution over millions of years. They are ideals that our civilization has constructed slowly over the past two or three millennia: in some cases, only over the past century or so. They are not even all compatible. Yet it is a feature of modern times—a defining feature, perhaps--that the world is consciously struggling to converge on a single set of core ideals that people everywhere can agree upon. This is the impulse behind such initiatives as the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Real moral dilemmas, like the one we began with, are painful. Of course, for some people all choices are painful. (Should I have vanilla or strawberry ice cream ? With or without chocolate sauce? My god, I just can't decide!) Here the problem is simply that by choosing one thing you forego the other. But moral dilemmas are more painful than that because they have to do more profoundly with your identity as an individual. If I ask: Who are you? you're not going to say, "I'm someone who prefers chocolate sauce on their ice cream." Or if you are, if that’s the sort of thing that reveals the core of your being, it's frankly a bit sad. No, if I ask, Who are you? I would expect you to tell me, among other things, something about the groups you identify with and something about your ideals.

Moral dilemmas may be painful, but that doesn't mean they can or should be avoided. Indeed, by coming to college, you are deliberately putting yourself in a situation where you are more likely to experience this particular kind of anguish. You leave behind your home community, perhaps some comfortable little village with just a stoplight, a post office and a convenience store, and you come to Alfred—to get away from all that noise and bustle. You forge new loyalties, and sometimes these pull against those you have back home. And the ideals you bring with you will also be challenged. This is bound to happen, if you're a thinking person. People talk approvingly of those who "have the courage of their convictions." Political leaders and TV ideologues love to jut out their chins and pose as men of principle who stand firm and never waver. But as the philosopher Nietzsche says, "there's a deeper courage than the so-called courage of one's convictions, and that is the courage to challenge one's convictions." In college you'll encounter new ways of thinking about morality, religion, politics, society, culture, science, and the arts [especially if you come to my coffee hour: Terracotta, Thursday afternoon]. In other words, you'll be given the opportunity and the tools to criticize beliefs and values you may have so far taken for granted.

Negotiating the conflict between loyalties and ideals

Working through these changes, and trying to negotiate problems like a clash between loyalties and ideals is hard work. The discomfort you feel might be called moral growing pains, so long as that isn't taken to imply that there comes a point a few years later, say on graduation, when you'll have satisfactorily resolved all your dilemmas. Because they crop up continually and in many forms. Often, they arise in the nooks and crannies of everyday life, as in the case of the downloaded exam that we began with, or when a family member gets themselves into serious trouble, or when a good friend tells an offensive joke, or when doing right by one friend involves breaking a promise made to another. But people also find themselves stretched between loyalty and ideals in the much grander arena of national and international politics. Think about the religious and ethnic conflicts that are continually in the news— between Israelis and Palestinians, between Sunni and Shia in Iraq; or between Hindus and Muslims in India. In many such cases, I would argue, we find progress toward an ideal is blocked by the power of deep-seated loyalties. This is understandable, perhaps, since in a dangerous environment belonging to some group and sticking with them has always been an individual's first and best kind of protection. But it is still unfortunate. Or think about the long-standing tension in American politics between nationalism and internationalism—a tension that can be found not just between parties but within a party--even within an individual.

Balancing loyalties and ideals is complicated. Ideals by themselves are likely to be ineffective; loyalties without ideals are blind. There is no mechanical decision procedure, no algorithm, no computer program that can integrate them. All you can do when confronted with moral dilemmas is try to make informed, rational, sensitive judgments. Making judgments in this way is what we call moral wisdom.

I could, of course, advise you to be wise; but there’s not much point. If your parents’ parting advice to you was “Be wise!” then they were certainly being well-intentioned, but they were also being incredibly unhelpful—which is, of course, their 9 inalienable and constitutional right as parents. Telling you to be wise is a bit like saying, “Oh, and one last thing—Don't screw up!” Genuinely useful advice has to be more specific: Eat an apple every day. Don’t play your electric guitar in the bath.

Nor is there any short cut to moral wisdom. You will mess up sometimes. Everyone does. But one way to reduce your chances of getting things badly wrong is to belong to the right kind of community. I’d like to finish by saying a few words about this notion of community, linking it to what I’ve been saying about loyalty and ideals.

There are all sorts of communities. A prison population is a community; so is the army; so is a street gang, a law firm, a neighborhood, a school. Each of these has a unique identity, determined by the individuals that constitute it plus the ideals—the beliefs and values--that it embodies.

Now, we’ve been talking throughout about tensions that can arise between one’s loyalties and one’s ideals. And it may have occurred to you that there’s one obvious way to reduce the chances of this sort of problem occurring: belong to a community that embodies your ideals. That way, the group that demands your allegiance also stands for what you believe in.

This makes sense. But it’s a bit too simple, and it’s important to see why. The problem with what I’ve just said is that a lack of tension between your loyalties and your ideals is not always a good thing. Racist, sexist, homophobic and intolerant attitudes will find themselves at home in communities that are racist, sexist, homophobic or intolerant. In such cases, we may have some kind of harmony between loyalty and ideals, but it’s not a harmony to celebrate; it’s a harmony that needs to be disturbed.

This is why we need to talk not just about a community, but about an enlightened community. An enlightened community is one that doesn't subjugate the individual to the group but seeks the right sort of balance between individual and collective well-being. So it tolerates difference, welcomes criticism, and strives after self-improvement. It also recognizes the legitimate claims of other communities that exist alongside it or that may even encompass it.

That, certainly, is the sort of community that Alfred University tries to be; and the university has a distinguished record of championing enlightened ideals. For example, it is one of the first co-educational colleges in the country; it admitted native American and African American students in the 1840's and 1850s when educational opportunities for minorities were hard to come by. This is an institution that prior to the civil war the college and the town were strongly abolitionist—Frederick Douglass spoke here twice in the 1850s and was warmly received. And at the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, every graduating male that year immediately signed up in the union army. This is an institution that was in the forefront of the struggle for women's suffrage.

As thousands of alumni can testify, Alfred is a community that has always inspired a very strong sense of allegiance among those who belong to it. But it is the mark of an enlightened institution—and this is true whether we're talking about a club or company or a college or a country—that while it values the loyalty of its members, it does not want that loyalty to be blind; it wants it to be deserved. Today you join this community, our community. And part of the responsibility you take on in joining us is to help make us that kind of institution.

Alfred University - August 23rd, 2007