Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


When is loyalty immoral?

posted by Rod Dreher

Marc Ambinder thinks the senior aides who covered up for the sleazy John Edwards during the presidential campaign should be publicly shamed. Why? Because of the stakes involved in allowing someone as reckless and character-deficient as Edwards compete for the presidency. Excerpt:

A screen too tight drives good people out of politics and sucks in those who are good at covering up their humanness. Some have suggested that the political press should investigate every rumor (impractical) or none (letting the tabloids do their job, which, if they do, will ultimately force the establishment media to kick in coverage at a later date). I am more comfortable with the second approach, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Having Tweeted my harsh judgment against Edwards aides, I received several replies that admonished me to focus on issues, on policy, and not on personality. Would that personality doesn’t matter; would that character doesn’t effect policy (and it’s not because we say it does — it does). Would that the real would of choices, decisions, campaigns and even voter preferences weren’t changed by the portrait we draw of a candidate, his or her family, how he or she treats his staff.

Once again, we’re back to that old familiar — and unresolvable — question: How much should personal character count in a politician? But I find the question Ambinder raises about personal moral responsibility of a politician’s senior staff to be more interesting. I think we would all agree that someone taken into the inner circle of a politician has a moral obligation to be loyal. When, though, does honoring that obligation become immoral? We’ve learned recently that several top McCain campaign aides were unnerved by how unfit for the vice presidency they believed Sarah Palin turned out to be during the campaign. Did they have a moral responsibility to leave the campaign and sound the alarm? Or was their responsibility rather to serve McCain, and to try to make the best of a situation they believed was poor?
This is not a question confined to politics alone. The Catholic priest Thomas Doyle wrecked his church career to stand up for sex abuse victims publicly, after his behind-the-scenes efforts to awaken the US Catholic bishops to the horror and the dimensions of the crisis got him nowhere. Corporate whistleblowers have risked their careers as well by going to the authorities when the leadership of their companies engaged in immoral and illegal activities. We esteem that sort of behavior, but we don’t often think about the fact that the virtue of loyalty is being compromised by such acts. Of course, loyalty is only a virtue insofar as one is loyal to a morally worthy person or institution. A loyal mafioso does not deserve our admiration.
But don’t you think that few people tempted to be disloyal for morally superior reasons find themselves in situations in which the right thing to do is obvious? What if “Joe Smith” is a senior campaign aide to presidential candidate Sen. Bob Forehead, and he discovers that the senator is recklessly cheating on his wife, and behaving in ways that suggest deeper corruption. He wants no part of it, and confronts Sen. Forehead. Sen. Forehead tells Joe that he, the senator, isn’t going to change, and if Joe doesn’t like it, he can resign. “But if you go public and trash my campaign,” the senator says, “I will ruin you professionally. You’ll never work in politics again.”
Joe judges that Sen. Forehead can make good on this threat, even if his career is mortally wounded by Joe’s potential revelations. Joe also thinks about his critically ill child at home, whose expensive treatments would have to end if Joe lost his job, and struggled to find another — potentially putting the child in danger of imminent death. To quietly leave Sen. Forehead’s campaign staff without sounding the alarm about what a dirtbag he is troubles Joe’s conscience, because he’s putting the nation at risk by staying silent about what he knows. But to go public would be to put the life of his child at risk.
What would you do in that situation? To what, or to whom, would you be loyal? Your country’s interest, or your child’s?
[Keep in mind that I don’t want this discussion in the comboxes to go into partisan politics. Let’s stay on the ethical questions.]



Advertisement
Comments read comments(28)
post a comment
Franklin Evans

posted February 1, 2010 at 12:23 pm


The basic question has long bothered me. It boils down to a complex question:
Who gets to define the limits of loyalty? On what basis does the definer (or anyone) judge when some moral line has been crossed?
Not meaning to crowd Rod in his request to avoid partisan politics here, but there is a cold, hard truth available in politics as it is practiced today (not just in the US): Loyalty to the person — and, by extension, to the party — is far and away valued more highly than personal integrity. I consider it outrageous that we as a society can tolerate a person who stays silent out of loyalty, and will at least silently join in the suspicion heaped upon anyone who becomes a whistle blower.



report abuse
 

Your Name

posted February 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm


I appreciate the problem you have raised, Rod, but in the case you cite the motive for Joe Smith is no longer loyalty. It is some form of self-interest. And that will force Mr. Smith into some hard decision-making, but it won’t have anything to do with loyalty.
The example of James Carville and Bill Clinton might be a better example. Carville said he’d stand with the President through thick and thin, even through lying, sexual chaos, etc.; he wrote a book about it – Stickin: The Case for Loyalty.
I sympathize with Mr. Ambinder but, after all, there are plenty of people who would reduce John Edwards’ character and choices down to sexual ones. And they’d be none of anyone’s business. Or, as Carville would say “you don’t abandon a guy over sex”.
Isn’t true loyalty about sticking with people after they’ve recognized and confessed to their very human failings (perhaps repented, too?)



report abuse
 

Carol

posted February 1, 2010 at 12:56 pm


Being a pragmatist at heart, I would probably resign quietly and secure a different job before trying to sound the alarm, by which point Senator Forehead would probably be ruling the world. Ah well. I like all of these ethical dilemmas you’ve been raising lately.



report abuse
 

MWorrell

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm


My own belief is that as soon as someone asks you to cross a moral boundary (my boundary line is defined by what the Bible teaches, as best as I can discern that), that person cannot be followed further. That doesn’t mean I turn actively against them (although if I thought it served the best interests of others, I hope that’s what I would do), but I’m not going to disobey God or my own conscience to follow a person. Refusing to compromise may be the most loyal, loving thing I can do for a person who has gone off track.
Loyalty to a good man is good. Loyalty to a bad man (or just his bad choice) is evil.
Sadly, the decision to continue to extend loyalty is usually based on the perceived value/effectiveness of the person. Popular athletes prove this every day.



report abuse
 

Franklin Evans

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm


The Smith/Forehead scenario is more common than one might think (or hope), though I would step back from the use of possibly fatal consequences in setting the scenario up. It should not be necessary to use them to make the point.
Anyway, my response is: What does Smith owe to anyone concerning Forehead’s infidelities? I would say absolutely nothing. He might feel some obligation to Mrs. Forehead, and might consider quietly and privately telling her about them. But I don’t get any valid motivation for feeling pangs of conscience by resigning quietly.
I can’t avoid a personal reaction here: If I were Smith, and Forehead threatened me in that manner, I would take my son in hand and go to the press myself, saying: I am resigning from Forehead’s staff, for reasons I will not list, but I will assert that Forehead personally threatened me with becoming unemployable if I did list the reasons. My son here would be seriously threatened by that in turn, and while I have personal reasons for staying quiet about those reasons, I want the world to know what sort of unscrupulous bastard is running for the highest office in this nation.
Nothing defangs a bully better than the Harsh Light of Public Scrutiny. If I had a need for someone with Smith’s background and skills, after seeing him say something like that (yes, some self-referentialism there) I’d hire him in a heartbeat… and I like to think I’d not be alone in that desire.



report abuse
 

New_Ideas

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm


Loyalty is defined as being faithful to a person or cause. Faith means accepting a proposition as true without evidence. Evidence is sense data. Therefore, to practice loyalty is to choose a cause or person without reference to sense data, e.g. by intuition, revelation, or public opinion. Is it reasonable to expect to live on earth by such means? You decide. See “Atlas Shrugged” for more details.



report abuse
 

Marian

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm


The problem with voting based on the candidate’s perceived character is that “character” is one of the easiest things for a competent campaign apparatus to fake. (As Louis Meyer said, “Sincerity is the most important thing. If you can fake that, you can do anything.”) It actually makes more sense to try to ascertain the candidate’s interests and see whether they align with one’s own. One is less likely to be disillusioned.



report abuse
 

the cat

posted February 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm


I wonder how many of our founding fathers cheated on their wives yet they are now viewed as heroes rather than as unfit for office?



report abuse
 

Andrea

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:10 pm


If Senator Forehead has me by the short hairs, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do as he says until I find another job that pays as well. I don’t have the luxury of standing on morality if I’m going to lose my house, my medical insurance and my ability to take care of my family if I squawk. If you’re a person with better options, you have more choices, but the majority of us do not. It’s not a matter of morality in some situations, it is a matter of survival. That may not be the case with Edwards’ people, but for a lot of lowlier peons it would be.



report abuse
 

Franklin Jennings

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm


Leave it to an objectivist like New_Ideas to publish the most astonishingly stupid post today!



report abuse
 

gpun

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:16 pm


Rod, taking a tangent, this would be much better place if your health (or life for that matter) did not have to be tied to your job; your hypothetical scenario is brightly contrasted and thankfully convenient in terms of making a moral choice. In typical day to day life where the choices may not be that stark, we may hang on to the work and close our eyes to many transgressions in order to look pleasant. Another key factor would be making a choice between being able to pay mortgage and becoming homeless. Again a system that values inheriting homes and by extension a social structure that respects sharing of the roof by extended families and bond to communities, could a step towards a less existential pressure.



report abuse
 

Franklin Jennings

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm


Andrea,
You might have gotten your point across much more briefly by saying that you value physical comforts over morality or a clean conscience.
Which makes you very American.



report abuse
 

JohnT

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm


I have to recuse myself on the basis that I am Italian.



report abuse
 

Franklin Evans

posted February 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm


Andrea, despite what I may have implied in my earlier post, I do understand your POV… but at some point, the question should be asked: Do we ever challenge the bully, should we just explicitly give the bully his due, and shut up about everything we will or might lose by standing up to him? I rather think that we cannot let it go for very long (in my feistier moments, even for one minute) before the bully becomes embedded and there is no way to keep up with ever-increasing demands on our surrender.
Franklin J., to some extent I agree with you, but it isn’t quite so binarily black-and-white as you might be asserting.



report abuse
 

Aluhks

posted February 1, 2010 at 3:01 pm


Franklin,
I don’t think it’s fair to conflate remaining in a morally or ethically questionable professional position after discovering that the position is questionable out of a duty to provide for one’s family with remaining in that same position because “you value physical comforts over morality or a clean conscience.” I especially don’t think it’s fair given that Andrea quite explicitly said she would only stay in the position until she could find a comparable job.
Taking a stand for your own “clean conscience” at the cost of your children’s health does not necessarily bespeak morality.
Obviously, my comment applies to those who genuinely find themselves in the sort of situation Andrea pointed out. Like her, I have no idea if that does or does not apply to the particular Edwards aides in question.



report abuse
 

the stupid Chris

posted February 1, 2010 at 3:29 pm


When I was building my career I learned that those who most demanded loyalty were least likely to reciprocate, and were most likely to lie (and encourage us to lie) at the drop of a hat.
Loyalty in and of itself is nothing. “My country, right or wrong” is as moral as the mafia code of “Omerta.”
CAPTCHA +2



report abuse
 

Jon in the Nati

posted February 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm


“Taking a stand for your own “clean conscience” at the cost of your children’s health does not necessarily bespeak morality.”
See, I think this is right. I am struggling with this a bit myself (though only on a theoretical level). Personally, I would be willing to endure any number of indignities for my faith and my principles. I can handle it. The story is quite different, however, when my choice to do so impacts my hypothetical wife and children. My choice will be cold comfort to them.
It kills me to say it, but I look around and I know that 95% of everything that is done in this world, good or bad, is done to pay the mortgage. Sucks that it is that way, but there it is.



report abuse
 

Ellie Dee

posted February 1, 2010 at 4:42 pm


You either are an ethicial human being, or you are not. If you see something that would ultimately cause harm,and you are involved with covering it up, for any reason, you have already compromised your ethics and that in itself , is Ones Greatest Harm!
Welcom back!



report abuse
 

Cecelia

posted February 1, 2010 at 5:04 pm


Isn’t the beginning of loyalty to be loyal to yourself and your own beliefs? So the immorality is to abandon one’s own principles – to be disloyal to self – rather than it being immoral to be disloyal to another.
I would think loyalty is virutous when it is to an idea or principle or belief as opposed to loyalty to a person.
The dilemna for your hypothetitcal aide is that no matter where he works he is likely to find people who fall short of the principles they express. There is no person, no corporation or organization that is going to be perfect. Rotten, illegal and immoral things are done in the workplace every day. I suspect this is why people keep silent – you can’t leave your job every time you discover nasty things go on behind the scenes. Maybe then the question one has to ask is – does the organization – despite it’s less than perfect people – still have the ability to pursue the ideals I am committed to?
In the case of the hypothetical aide – seems like a good arguement for the seperation of health care from employment! But I think if I were in the same situation – I’d find a job first then resign. I might not go public with the details of the politican’s infidelities but I would go public re: any activities that were immoral or illegal re: his job.



report abuse
 

Your Name

posted February 1, 2010 at 5:53 pm


Good question, what should Steve Schmidt have done as he got to know Sarah Palin? Both Schmidt and Edwards’ aides could and apparently did rationalize that no candidate is perfect, Obama would be worse and stay the course. That is what I would most likely do, unless I won the lottery during the decision window.



report abuse
 

Ethan C.

posted February 2, 2010 at 12:39 am


Maybe this is the Irish / Norse blood in me talking, but here goes…
I’m inclined to say that if the Senator threatens you with something that would cause that degree of damage to your family, you would be justified not merely in abandoning loyalty to him, but in retaliating against him to the the fullness of your ability. That would go beyond merely exposing him in a way calculated to damage his career, into personally harming him to a severe degree.
It would, of course, be practical to first do whatever was necessary to protect your family from his threat. Then, once your family was safe, your could pursue your vengeance against him.
Now, that’s probably not a very Christian sentiment, and if engaged upon in a systematic way it leads to the sort of cultural destruction that comes from blood feuds, but that’s what I would naturally be inclined to do in that situation.



report abuse
 

John Spragge

posted February 2, 2010 at 1:12 am


Three factors make these choices very difficult. First, when I talk about the ethics around loyalty, I actually mean three different things: first, loyalty to an ideal that an individual or institution embodies. Since no person, and no institution in this fallen world embodies any virtue perfectly, loyalty to an actual, flawed institution comes at the price of tolerating hypocrisy. To put it in historical terms, would slavery have justified an American undermining the interests of the United States in 1850? Would lynching have justified it in 1928? Often, we have to give our loyalties not to the current state of institutions, but to what we hope they will develop into.
On a personal level, I have to contend with loyalty as friendship. I live in an uneasy space between the human need to trust that my friends and I will not drop each other at the first hint of disagreement or even wrong-doing by one of us, and the cynical definition of friendship: “friends help you move; real friends help you move a body”.
Finally, in my experience questions of loyalty get tangled up with matters of integrity. I can certainly think of situations in which a friend might confess a particularly unethical deed that I could not live with and remain their friend, but which would also leave me feeling bound to protect their confidence. If you get access to information that someone would never give you if they did not trust you, under what conditions, if any, can you justify disclosing it? I see this as an issue of integrity somewhat different from pure loyalty. Even if friends have forfeited any claim on my loyalty, I might have real trouble justifying breaking a promise, explicit or implied, to keep what I have learned about them to myself.



report abuse
 

Marian

posted February 2, 2010 at 11:45 am


“Andrea
February 1, 2010 2:10 PM
“If Senator Forehead has me by the short hairs, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do as he says until I find another job that pays as well. I don’t have the luxury of standing on morality if I’m going to lose my house, my medical insurance and my ability to take care of my family if I squawk. If you’re a person with better options, you have more choices, but the majority of us do not.”
This may be one of the better arguments for celibacy of the clergy and other public servants.



report abuse
 

Marian

posted February 2, 2010 at 11:47 am


“It kills me to say it, but I look around and I know that 95% of everything that is done in this world, good or bad, is done to pay the mortgage. Sucks that it is that way, but there it is.”
I once heard Daniel Ellsberg say that if everybody who opposed the Vietnam War had been willing to lose his/her job to implement that opposition, it would have been over by 1967.



report abuse
 

the cat

posted February 2, 2010 at 12:57 pm


“It kills me to say it, but I look around and I know that 95% of everything that is done in this world, good or bad, is done to pay the mortgage. Sucks that it is that way, but there it is.”
Marian said:
“I once heard Daniel Ellsberg say that if everybody who opposed the Vietnam War had been willing to lose his/her job to implement that opposition, it would have been over by 1967.”
The question is whether this has ever not been the case or ever could not be the case. Before it was mortgages, it was food, or avoiding being killed or whatever else. Especially given that there was not always food stamps and such



report abuse
 

Jillian

posted February 2, 2010 at 4:42 pm


In “Eichmann in Jerusalem” Hannah Arendt points out that that mediocrity of character and a banal careerism was the lethal combination at the root of Eichmann’s willingness to do misdeeds.
There’s also Tallyrand’s curt observation that “A married man with a family will do anything for money.”



report abuse
 

Janice Fox

posted February 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm


Regarding the celibacy of the clergy:
The clergy are sacrament bound to keep confidential what they have been confidentially told. It is also taking advantage of a person’s moment of weakness to disclose something publicly that has been told to you with the expectation or promise of confidentiality.
Dante puts those people who betray their friends in a very hot circle of Hell.



report abuse
 

Janice Fox

posted February 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm


I should have said: The clergy are sacrament or ethically bound to keep confidential knowledge confidential whether they are married or not.



report abuse
 

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the beliefnet.com terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to beliefnet.com and may be used by beliefnet.com in accordance with the agreements.



Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Rod Dreher. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Most Recent Scientology Story on Beliefnet! Happy Reading!!!

posted 3:25:02pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Mommy explains her plastic surgery
In Dallas (naturally), a parenting magazine discusses how easy it is for mommies who don't like their post-child bodies to get surgery -- and to have it financed! -- to reverse the effects of time and childbirth. Don't like what nursing has done to your na-nas? Doc has just the solution: Doctors say

posted 10:00:56pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Why I became Orthodox
Wrapping up my four Beliefnet years, I was thinking about the posts that attracted the most attention and comment in that time. Without a doubt the most popular (in terms of attracting attention, not all of it admiring, to be sure) was the October 12, 2006, entry in which I revealed and explained wh

posted 9:46:58pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Modern Calvinists
Wow, they don't make Presbyterians like they used to!

posted 8:47:01pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

'Rape by deception'? Huh?
The BBC this morning reported on a bizarre case in Israel of an Arab man convicted of "rape by deception," because he'd led the Jewish woman with whom he'd had consensual sex to believe he was Jewish. Ha'aretz has the story here. Plainly it's a racist verdict, and a bizarre one -- but there's more t

posted 7:51:28pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.