On Manly Loyalty

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 25, 2009 · 45 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue


In Dante’s Inferno, Dante takes an allegorical journey through the nine levels of Hell. With Virgil as his guide, he ventures through nine concentric circles, each level inhabited by successively worse sinners. Dante works his way through limbo, lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath and sloth, heresy, violence, and fraud, before finally making it the center of the earth and the lowest circle of Hell. Here reside the worst sinners in history, those guilty of treason and betrayal. These traitors are doomed to spend eternity encased in ice, with the very worst of the bunch-Brutus, Cassius, and Judas-being perpetually chewed on by Satan.

With so many varieties of sinners, why did Dante mark traitors as the worst of the worst? For that matter, why do those who remember little about the Revolutionary War still know exactly who Benedict Arnold was? And why is being called a “fairweather fan” such a derisive insult? In short, why is betraying one’s loyalty so unforgivable an act?

While the fabric that has held society together has worn thinner in our modern age, it is still loyalty that lends the cloth its strength. It is loyalty that keeps the world functioning. We could not conduct business transactions or personal relationship without it. Loyalty is the idea that we are who we say we are and we will do what we say we will do. It is the hope that the integrity with which we initially encountered someone will endure indefinitely.

It’s also what keeps us unified. We live out our lives as part of agreed upon norms that allow us to operate from day to day. We need to know who we can count on. We all understand that ideally, friends will have your back, lovers will remain true, and businesses will not cheat you out of your money. When someone is disloyal, they break from these expectations and weaken the trust that holds us together.

Yet modern society is understandably weary of the virtue of loyalty. Every virtue has its true manifestation and its false counterpart. Frugality can become stinginess; resolution can become stubbornness; humility can become passiveness. And loyalty can become blind obedience. Critics of loyalty point to Germany under Hitler or China under Mao and ask, “Weren’t the evil deeds committed by ordinary people done out of a sense of loyalty?”

But the loyalty demanded by such regimes, by conquerors and oppressors, is not true loyalty. Loyalty can never be demanded, only chosen, as we shall see. And while loyalty can be used for both ill and good, this does not negate its great and honorable power when used for the latter.

What is Loyalty?

Like, courage, integrity, and personal responsibility, loyalty is one of the essential manly virtues. But like other lofty attributes, it is often easier to describe with examples than words. We know it in the soldier who will not leave a wounded comrade behind and dodges withering fire to bring the man to safety. We see it embodied in the prominent man who has women throw themselves at him when away from home, but who never strays from his wife, and in the religious martyr who chooses death over the disavowal of faith. And it is the bond that befuddles girlfriends who cannot understand why their beau is still friends with a childhood chum with whom he now seemingly shares little in common.

Josiah Royce, author of the 1920 book, The Philosophy of Loyalty, said loyalty was “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” Let’s unpack this definition:

Willing. Loyalty must born from your own choice and free will. It cannot be forced upon you by another person or organization. Loyalty must be chosen.

Practical and thoroughgoing devotion. Loyalty is not some pie in the sky abstraction. It must be coupled with action. Feeling and emotion can be part of loyalty, but action must always constitute the core.

To a cause. We often imagine loyalty as a bond between ourselves and individuals or organizations-with a friend, with a wife, with a church. Thus, when that individual entity changes and stops interesting us, we feel justified in breaking off our loyalty to it.

True loyalty must take as its cause something bigger than the individual; it must be rooted in principles, not people. Be not loyal to your buddy Eddie, but loyal to the idea of brotherhood and friendship. Be not loyal to your wife, but loyal to the idea of love and fidelity. Be not loyal to your sister but loyal to the sacred nature of familial bonds. Be not loyal to a church but loyal to the gospel.

Such unchanging principles must serve as the foundation of your loyalty. Thus, when people and organizations shift and change, your loyalty, anchored to immovable values, will remain steadfast.

To What Should We Be Loyal?

“Whenever, I say, such a cause so arouses your interest that it appears to you worthy to be served with all your might, with all your soul, with all your strength, then this cause awakens in you the spirit of loyalty. If you act out this spirit, you become, in fact, loyal.” -Josiah Royce

While we often think of loyalty as a somber duty, the causes which arouse your loyalty must be ones that fascinate and possess you, ones that reverberate in your being and invigorate your spirit.

The causes to which you choose to be loyal need not be dictated to you by your position or by tradition and can be entirely of your own creation. Choose causes which mirror your will and align with your core values and ideals, causes that so engross and engage both your heart and mind that you feel willing to make whatever sacrifices will be necessary to remain loyal and true.

The Decline of Loyalty

In time where individuality and personal freedom are the values du jour, loyalty is not celebrated with much frequency or gusto. Our intensely consumerist society has made us a nation of shoppers, not just for actual commercial goods, but in all aspects of our lives. With the myriad of choices available-from shampoos to professions-we are taught that happiness is a result of keeping one’s options open to the greatest possible degree. We are always on the hunt for a better deal, for an upgrade. Thus modern loyalty is a pale version of its ancient form. Sure we’re loyal……until something better comes along. We’re loyal…until we are given an excuse to bail. Of course this is not true loyalty at all. A loyal man commits to something with the idea that he is casting his lot with that cause in perpetuity.

Loyalty has also been weakened by our age of cynicism. As we have mentioned, loyalty requires a cause that invigorates and enlivens both heart and mind. Thus, idealizing your cause to a certain extent is necessary for loyalty. When we decide to be loyal, we are loyal to the very best in something, to the potential of something. We are fully aware of the warts of the cause, but these are not the things that animate our loyalty.

But our cynical age wishes to dwell only on the warts, to the eclipsing of anything good and virtuous about the cause. Cynicism crushes loyalty before it even has a chance to sprout up. When you speak of marriage, divorcees are waiting to intone about how outdated the institution is and how pointless the endeavor When you speak of country, naysayers immediately rattle off the latest news of government scandals. You cannot talk about a great man without someone jumping in to list their faults. There seems to be no room these days for someone who sees things as he hopes them to be, without being called naive and moronic. A cause needs some profundity and dignity for loyalty to thrive, and such space is currently hard to come by. But loyalty deserves a place even in our “sophisticated” modern age, as it offers a myriad of benefits to both the individual man and to society as a whole.

The Benefits of Loyalty

“Loyalty for the loyal man is not only a good, but for him chief amongst all the moral goods of his life, because it furnishes to him a personal solution of the hardest of human practical problems, the problem: “For what do I live? Why am I here? For what am I good? Why am I needed?” -Josiah Royce

We admire loyal men because they are filled with confidence, aim, direction, and purpose. We know what they are about and what we can expect from them. We know where they stand.

But loyalty may seem to be an archaic approach to life, one that will be detrimental to your personal happiness and fulfillment. Isn’t it good to always be willing to move on to something better and not be tied down to any one thing?

On the surface this makes sense, but it has been my experience that true happiness comes from committing to a cause bigger than yourself. And committing to that cause for the long haul. While society says that such absolute commitment is stifling, it’s really the endless shopping around mentality that’s leaving us unsatisfied. Here’s why:

Loyalty breeds satisfaction and happiness. Studies have shown that being able back out of our decisions makes us less happy than making “irreversible” decisions. For example, in one study students were told that they could pick one fine art print to take home with them. One group was told that the decision was final. The other group was told that they could return and exchange the print later if they so desired. While almost everyone in the second group said they were happy to have the option to return their print, almost none did. However, the second group ended up far less satisfied with their choice than the group that was not allowed to make exchanges. Why? Because with the option to reverse their decision always in the back of their minds, they could not move forward and put in the important psychological work to accept and enjoy their decision.

Thus, while it may seem risky to commit our loyalty to something for the long haul, it can be quite psychologically rewarding. In trading quantity for quality, you will come to know the rich satisfactions available only to those who are willing to go in-depth with something, sticking with it through thick and thin.

Loyalty lessens the amount of uncertainty in your life. In a previous article, we talked about the way in which having too many choices can paralyze us into unhappiness and inaction. One of the ways to mitigate this effect is to purposely limit our choices. There are some choices in life we can make once and never have to make again. Once you know where you stand in life, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you are faced with certain choices.

Loyalty breeds loyalty. Of course living a life of loyalty does not garner merely personal benefits. It can positively transform society as a whole. Loyalty is contagious. As we lives of loyalty we encourage other men to do likewise. As Royce argues, we should act “as to further the general confidence of man in man.”

Loyal men can change the world. When good men bail out of organizations that they feel have gotten off-track, it simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are no shortage of problems with everything from family to politics, but if loyal men don’t stick around and work from within to be a force of positive change, these institutions will never improve. Loyal men transform causes from the inside out.

Individualism, Free Will, and Loyalty

Perhaps the greatest impediment to our embrace of loyalty is the worry that we will lose some of our free will in the pursuit of it. After all, once you are dedicated to a cause, you are committed to acting in a certain way. But loyalty and individuality need not be at odds. Rather than submerge one’s individuality, loyalty can elevate and exalt the self.

The greatest and most difficult of philosophical tasks is it to discover and understand our own will. We first look inside of ourselves, but it is hard to find answers from gazing within. So we then look to conform with the rest of society. But doing so only highlights our differences with others and our desire to rebel from certain social norms. We then return to looking within ourselves for answers, and the cycle continues.

Loyalty can unify this conflict between individuality and social conformity, between our inner and outer worlds. Loyalty gives to man an external cause, an external purpose and course of action. But the decision to serve that cause is created from inner reasons, which glorify and inspire the self. In manifesting our inner values in an external way, we intensely feel the self, which is now imbued with power, value, and dignity. Royce argued:

“Thus loyalty. . . solves the paradox of our ordinary existence, by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.”

When Are We Justified in Being Disloyal?

Perhaps the most difficult question to grapple with concerning loyalty is answering the question of when a man is justified in breaking his loyalty. Is a loyalty that has loopholes even loyalty at all?

Many men misunderstand loyalty as dependent on a tit for tat relationship. They see their relationships as a scale; as long as both sides remain balanced, they remain loyal. But as soon as the scale tips unfavorably to where they are sacrificing more than they are getting in return, they feel justifed in breaking their loyalty. But true loyalty is not a function of reciprocity.

You should strive to stay loyal until all the work you can do for your cause is finished, which may not come until the end of your life. Of course in between now and then your cause may change , and you be tempted to be bail and say, “I’m not going to let this cause tell me what to do!” But remember, you chose the cause. You proposed, you got baptized, you joined the army. In so choosing, you also chose to accept whatever crap would later come down the line. You knew the risks in pledging your loyalty, and you willing accepted those risks. What good is a loyalty that swells in the midst of pomp and ceremony only to shrink in the trenches?

On the other hand, a cause should never become your conscience. And what does a man do when his cause violates that conscience, when it violates his core values? The first time it happens are you justified in being disloyal? After 7 times 70 times? Never? Is there any honor in taking great abuse from your wayward cause or is to remain in an offensive situation a disavowal of your manliness?

Here is where I’d like readers to pick up the discussion. What role does loyalty have to play in a man’s life and in modern society? And when is a man justified in being disloyal?

Source: The Philosophy of Loyalty by Josiah Royce, 1920

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luke - AspiringGentleman October 25, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Great article. It’s always good to have a reminder of the virtues of loyalty. I have more than a few colleagues that should probably read this.

2 Justin October 25, 2009 at 11:59 pm

I am not sure if unwaivering loyalty is best to be had by any man…

3 Miss Gabriel October 26, 2009 at 12:03 am

What a great post! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with why loyalty is considered “old-fashioned” – a critical balance of people have fallen into a deconstructionist mindset. There are now more people criticizing the false counterpoints than living true virtues, so that the true virtue becomes lost in a miasma of guilt, shame, and fad.

In a society, criticism should ALWAYS be present, but a person should never be afraid to stand up for a concept as good and true. Thank you.

4 Michael Carpenter October 26, 2009 at 12:24 am

Really liked the letter and thought it was well written. I loved your definition of loyalty and the visual aids, I kept thinking about forrest gump. Good job I enjoyed this article!

5 Zeke McGuire October 26, 2009 at 12:58 am

I think a man should only be disloyal if the “cause” tries to make him go against his own core values.

6 Dan October 26, 2009 at 1:33 am

I love this post. It’s one of the best you’ve written!

For me, loyalty is the creative force behind purpose. I have purpose now that I am loyal to Christ (granted, I’m not perfectly loyal). Because I have a job to do for him, I have a role to play in the world now. Now my focus in raising children is to help steer them in the right direction, to love my wife enough to sacrifice for her, to show my love and grace to my shipmates, and to show that same love to God. This is purpose…and it is because of loyalty to the cause…to God himself. It’s powerful!

And there is never a reason not to be loyal in this case. I can choose to be disloyal, but it isn’t worth it…I tried!

7 Charles October 26, 2009 at 1:43 am

Excellent article.

I am loyal to my wife, to my friends, and to my country. When can a man be disloyal? That is a hard question. I think Zeke has it right about when a cause violates your core values or maybe when the core of why you pledged your loyalty in the first place disappears. For example when you pledge your loyalty to your wife, you pledge to the idea that you will be faithful and she will be faithful. But if she cheats on you, she violates that core and you don’t need to stick around.

8 Ted Thomas October 26, 2009 at 5:49 am

Dogs are stupidly loyal…you can beat a dog half to death, until it is cowering in the corner…then whistle and pat your thigh and it will come. At some point youi need to realize that you are being stupidly loyal. I love my wife and was raised to be loyal, hard-working, supporting, and taught that “Men don’t leave”, but when is my happiness lost in being what is expected?, so far this has not come to pass, but it is a benchmark. When my country engages in such needless wars that trying to justify them makes me just look stupid, time to quit defending it. When my friend philanders so openly that defending him makes me look stupid, time to quit. I know the prideful feeling (yeah, a sin) of telling another woman “sorry, I have a wife”, as well as the little twinge of regret (yeah, admit it) that sometimes comes with it (we are men after all). It is a sword we are contemplating throwing ourselves on after all, what will it be for? what will we lose or gain in our disloyalty?. War movies and Westerns shape our ideas of what we are supposed to sacrifice ouselves for, fight for, and quit “being played for a chump”…but we are loyal because it makes us feel good…accept that
OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

9 Chad October 26, 2009 at 7:42 am

Thank you for this, My girlfriend of 6 months broke up up with me recently, because I was apparently ‘not what she needed in this stage of her life’. She normally is extremely indecisive, and this article put it all in perspective for me. Thank you, it all makes sense now.

10 Kosh Naranek October 26, 2009 at 8:43 am

When does loyalty have a loophole? When another loyalty overcomes it. We are all loyal, whether we like it or not. You can be loyal to yourself (most are), to God, or to others.

Consider the following choices:

Cheating wife vs. raising your children in a good home. To whom are you loyal? wife or children? I’ll pick children every time. (This assumes my wife is obstinate in her determination to be adulterous.)

Oath to defend and uphold the Constitution vs. obeying the Commander in Chief. My oath to the Constitution is greater, in my mind, than any oath to any single man or group of men. If the President forces a dichotomy between choosing him or choosing the Constitution, the choice is already made. Constitution wins, President loses.

And so it is in life. Sometimes people fail you. When they do, your loyalty to them should never even waver unless continued loyalty to them places them over what is Right and Good in life.

11 Bruce Wise October 26, 2009 at 9:01 am

Thanks so much for reminding us of this very basic manly characteristic. Being loyal seems to come from a very deep place within all of us. It’s not a concious decision. It’s not a deliberate action. Loyalty just is. And rarely do we ever stop to examine it, or discuss it.

Excellent article!

12 Dan October 26, 2009 at 9:18 am

Fantastic post!

I have a question though….. how does loyalty fit into the workplace? After all, the days of working with one company for life and then the company taking care of you with a pension are long gone. How does loyalty fit into jobs today?

13 Walter Daniels October 26, 2009 at 9:29 am

To me, the time for loyalty to change is when the loyalty is betrayed. I.e., when the Religion betrays the core principles it claims (Christian behavior), or the leadership of the country does. Then, I am betraying my “loyalty” to a lesser cause, for sticking to a higher cause (Christ, or Constitution). In the case of Marriage, I consider it justified only if the spouse makes it impossible to remain. I would remain true to my vows, even if they didn’t. I would just not live with them any longer.

14 P October 26, 2009 at 10:06 am

Loyalty must be given a context in this article. As in loyalty to friends and loved ones but there is a form of loyalty that is outdated. That is the loyalty to employers. There was a day when a worker could count on his/her employer to provide a job for their whole career and when that career was over to provide for them in retirement through pensions. Those days have gone away and companies are to blame for initiating this. No longer are they loyal to their employees. The leadership of many companies are only loyal to the stock holders, if even that. Pensions have been done away with and once guaranteed comforts in retirement have been replaced with risky 401Ks that, if you ask many close to retirement, seem to disappear in our troubled stock market and corrupt corporate greed. Gone are the days of strong unions. The protections that unions won for the working man are slowly disappearing and to the point where minimum wage has not increased at the same rate as the cost of living. Health insurance is not available to the masses and there is not good fix for this. Laborers are being thwarted by jobs being shipped over seas causing the collapse of whole cities that were loyal to industries such as Flint and Detroit. Loyalty to employers is outdated, blind and not beneficial.

15 Will October 26, 2009 at 10:47 am

Discussion on this in the community pages: http://community.artofmanliness.com/forum/topics/loyalty-1

16 Nick Morrow October 26, 2009 at 11:23 am

Unproven loyalty is just an idealistic theory. Deeds over words.
Loyalty above all, except honor.

17 Rick Scoutmaster October 26, 2009 at 12:06 pm

GREAT post: early in the article, it really is more about trustworthyness, but the rest helped me to get a better handle on “Loyal”, part of the Boy Scout values I am supposed to teach and model. This whole discussion about fundamental, unchanging personal values, your creed as it were, is so rare as to be an enigma to most of our Western society. How can anyone have purpose, a life well lived, without core values?

18 Will October 26, 2009 at 12:50 pm
19 Michael October 26, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Excellent article. One of the better one’s I have read. I would make one very small comment, though. You gave examples, “you proposed, you got baptized, you joined the army.” I agree with the thought, not the examples. I was merely weeks old when I was baptized. Hardly the basis for giving one’s loyalty. Baptized as an adult, absolutely, I would agree with your example and still agree wholeheartedly with the remaining two.

20 Brad October 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm

“Loyalty must born from your own choice and free will. It cannot be forced upon you by another person or organization. Loyalty must be chosen.”

No truer words have been spoken! When I was a teenager many people told me that loyalty had to be earned. To me there seemed to be something wrong and slippery about this statement. When I became older, I realized that those who wanted their loyalty to be earned, simply wanted their loyalty to be purchased. I also realized that the price for purchased loyalty was too high and the quality and quantity were too low. The statement that loyalty must be earned, is not an attempt to sell their loyalty to you, it is an attempt to extort your loyalty from you.

There is an inverse law at work here. A loyalty that is freely given, is priceless and worth more than can ever be expressed. Conversely, the more you pay for loyalty, the more worthless it is.

In “Time Enough for Love” by Robert Heinlein, he wrote “Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt
you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.”

You can easily interchange the words duty and loyalty.

21 Jeff Young October 26, 2009 at 2:05 pm

To Dan, post 12-

With regards to workplace loyalty, I think the point in the post about being loyal to a cause, not a person, applies to your job. A company is much more of a person than a cause. You should be loyal to your profession, to your calling. Doctors shouldn’t be loyal to the hospital they work at, but rather to the healing they perform. The same thing applies to chefs, car mechanics, engineers, writers, any profession one could be involved in. Your loyalty should compel you to produce the best result possible. If your workplace gives you inferior tools or materials, try to change things, so you can achieve more. If this is not possible, find a new workplace, where your devotion to your craft can shine through.

Overall, great post. Loyalty is one of the traits that I’m trying to cultivate in myself. Strangely, I think I was more loyal, better at showing my loyalty, before college. So I think there is something to this cultural poisoning of loyalty.

22 Isi October 26, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Fantastic article.

@Dan – I agree with you about the work place. It is nearly impossible to find a company that you grow up and retire with. Fewer still that offer pensions or retirement – other than 401k programs. My dad works for a union and should retire soon but even in his case he is continuously laid off and is at the beck and call of the union for where and when he will works – it certainly doesn’t work the other way. I have been in the tech field for about 15 years and have held countless jobs. Until recently I hadn’t even considered the notion of staying in one place – there hasn’t been a place that I have wanted to dedicate my life – or a portion of it anyway too – hopefully something like that comes along – i would welcome it.

On another topic I particularly like the part about being a society of choices, a shopping society where nothing is ever permanent and there is always a replacement around the corner – wash/rinse/repeat. I have four kids and think about the items we buy for our lives or for fun. I always try to buy quality and even when possible try to stick to a brand that I know and trust. When something breaks, I don’t merely pitch it to the curb and purchase another, i try to fix it, repair it by any (well…almost any) possible means and only when all is lost get a replacement. I am hoping that being a part of this process my kids will learn they should focus on quality and once they find it they should, if possible, remain loyal.

23 Nik October 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

“True loyalty must take as its cause something bigger than the individual; it must be rooted in principles, not people. Be not loyal to your buddy Eddie, but loyal to the idea of brotherhood and friendship. Be not loyal to your wife, but loyal to the idea of love and fidelity. Be not loyal to your sister but loyal to the sacred nature of familial bonds. Be not loyal to a church but loyal to the gospel.” I am really not sure what this passage is supposed to mean, and I think it is vital to people’s conception of loyalty. Allow me to illustrate this:

You choose a charitable organization and dedicate yourself to it, working there for consistently for maybe a decade, helping with projects, working to evangelize the cause, build relationships with businesses, start to help with management until you are part of a local or regional management council, etc. Then, the organization begins to change for the worse, you find that it has lost site of its goals, so you work tirelessly to get it back on track: you talk to other people involved in organizational management at different levels, and they reject you; you talk to other ground-level volunteers, and try to build momentum to get things back on track, you still find yourself snubbed, and soon you find that the organization is less and less open to you, starts pushing you to the sidelines, minimizing your involvement in decisions and planning, maybe trying to force you out of all decision-making.

I think at this point–and not before this point–you are justified to leave the organization and rededicate yourself to another organization that has the same aims that attracted you to the first one. However, here are two other conceptions of loyalty that I believe exist:

1) You should never leave the first organization. Your loyalty is to that organization, and as long as you live, you should never stop trying to correct its path, no matter how alienated you are.

2) You should leave the organization at the first betrayal/large setback. If you see it is going awry, and you talk to the management about fixing it, and they reject you, maybe try talking to them one more time, and then call it quits. You are loyal to the charitable cause, not the charitable organization.

I completely disagree with both of these approaches because I think you have an immediate loyalty to the organization/individual and an ultimate loyalty to the cause. It makes no sense to spend fruitless years trying to fix something/someone with no desire to improve, but it makes even less sense to abandon a once great person/organization without giving it your best effort first. I also think loyalty increases with time. The longer you spend with the person/organization to your mutual benefit, the longer you owe it to try to correct problems before you move on.

I believe that loyalty cannot be blind. All serious actions in life must be regarded critically at the outset and critically throughout, especially because we can never truly and completely know/understand another person. When you discover you have been lied to from the outset, you have no obligation to be loyal; it is up to your discretion to decide how much of your vow/dedication is still valid.

Anyway, long post I know, but I am wondering what type of loyalty you are advocating here, Brett and Kate. In the passage quoted above, you seem to say that your loyalty should not be to the individual/organization, but is it really loyalty without some measure of that?

Further, I completely disagree with the description of loyalty to friends, family and relationships. I am loyal to my wife and only my wife. I have no regard for the institution of marriage except as it relates to *my wife’s* well-being. The same goes for my friends and family. Personal relationships are—tautologically—personal. I think it is empty and impersonal to hold your loyalty to “brotherhood” instead of to your brother. Those categories/conceptions have no merit beyond the good they perform for the parties involved, therefore they should be tailored to each personal situation. In that vein, I extend the same type of loyalty described in the example above to my personal relationships. If my brother betrays me over and over again, I will work hard to improve our relationship, but if it continues unabated, at some point, I will no longer work for it. I will always be open to give him another chance, but I will not always be the one making myself vulnerable and putting in all the effort. At some point your relationship has to become one of hope instead of action. In the same way, I would likely return to the charitable organization A if I found it was under new management and had returned to its roots, perhaps not in the same capacity, but I would return.

24 Brett McKay October 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm


Are you saying that there is nothing you would do for your wife or brother that you would not do for a normal friend? That you wouldn’t go the extra mile for them? And if the answer to this question is no, the next question would be why? And the answer to that question is the special nature of those relationship-the principles behind those people-family and marriage. Look at it this way, let’s say a friend and your brother are getting married the same weekend–you’ve known both of them since you were born, and let’s even say that you see the friend far more often, talk to him far more often, get along with him better than your brother. Who’s wedding would you attend? Dimes to donuts you would go to your brother’s. Why? Because your are loyal to family above individual people.

25 Jamie October 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Some great points, there, Nik.

I, too, think that the concept of “loyalty” is being misrepresented by some of the folks here in the comments. Loyalty doesn’t mean always agreeing without a person or a cause; neither does it mean always apologizing for it or making excuses for it. What it DOES mean is that you have that person’s (or cause’s) best interests at heart. You’re loyal to making that thing to which you are loyal succeed.

You can be loyal to your best friend, but chide him for his philandering. You can be loyal to your church, but disagree with their approach to teaching. You can be loyal to your spouse, but insist on counseling to patch problems in your marriage.

Loyalty is more a promise of unconditional COMMITMENT than a promise of unconditional agreement.

26 Nik October 26, 2009 at 4:24 pm

@Brett – I think I am understanding what you meant about the direction of your loyalty in personal relationships. However, I still think something seems off in the description of being loyal to the institution rather than the individual. Perhaps it is because I still don’t understand your point properly and perhaps because we disagree.

I would respond to your points by saying that they stem not from the fact that I am loyal to “brotherhood” or “marriage” but because of simple prioritization of loyalties. Even if I am loyal to “the Church” and “marriage,” that doesn’t mean I have a clear hierarchy of obligation. No matter what the shape or content of your loyalties, you have to prioritize them. And, like many people, I prioritize my loyalties something like this — wife, immediate family, lifelong friends, cherished institutions/organizations, other friends. I nowhere said that my loyalties are all equal, and that is of course due in part to the nature of the relationships and their underlying institutions.

However, getting back to how individual circumstances are vitally important to me, if my brother and I were estranged, and my lifelong friend had been there for me in particularly rough times when my brother had not, I would probably attend the friend’s wedding. Aside from that situation, though, your assumption is correct.

I will have to think a bit more about the loyalty to the individual vs. the idea/cause. I’m understanding your point more and more; the distinction is still just rather foreign and troubling to me.

27 Lenadams Dorris October 26, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Two related thoughts on lyalty:
1) Newly forged loyalties come much fewer and further between to an older man. Why? Because age and experience makes it clear that very few ideas, causes, organizations or even people are actually worthy of loyalty. A young man’s passion, energy and idealism are easily channeled into fiercely held but often ill-advised loyalties that sooner or later will place him in a compromising (or compromised) position.

An older man is much more cautious about those he vows his life and allegiance to, something which I think is true of both men of constructive and destructive bents. On the other hand, those loyalties an older man *does* commit to are likely to be held with an intensity at least matching that of the most bright-eyed youth!

Likewise, a society as a whole seems less likely to encourage loyalty the farther along it is in its own maturity, and, perhaps, the larger and more inclusive its world becomes. This is not the same as relativism; it is, rather, an adaptation to facts.

2) In some ways modern loyalty has become a version of Prisoner’s Dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma). As has been made excruciatingly clear by the waver and collapse of the American industrial base, loyalty and commitment to an organization can turn out to be very much to one’s disadvantage over the long haul, damaging both one’s psyche and stability. When faced with a conflict between loyalty and taking care of one’s self and one’s family, sane men chose the latter. As in the classic Dilemma, it’s a game of who is able to accrue benefits from the other party without giving anything up.

This problem as it relates to automotive brand loyalty is rather brilliantly discussed in an Op/Ed from yesterday’s New York Times by Marc Fitten called “Our Cars, Ourselves” It can be read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/opinion/25fitten.html?scp=2&sq=&st=nyt



28 Brett McKay October 26, 2009 at 6:06 pm


Let’s look at some more examples. Say you’re a member of a church and the leader of the church gets caught in a scandal. The man who was loyal simply to the church as an institution will feel justified in breaking off his loyalty to his faith. However, I would argue that the man should have been loyal to the principles of the church, to the gospel, to Christ. In that case, the institution can go astray, its leaders can go astray, but a person can remain loyal to his faith because their ultimate loyalty is to the gospel itself.

Let’s look at another scenario. You argue that we should be loyal to individuals, based on our personal relationship with them. You are loyal to your wife but not necessarily to a co-worker. Why? You would argue it is because of your individual, personal relationship with the former but not the latter. Basically because you love and cherish one and not the other. But let’s say you hit a rough patch in your marriage–you no longer feel in love with your wife, you don’t even like her anymore. Will you still be loyal to her? And if so, what will keep you loyal? The man who builds his loyalty on the individual will feel justified in ending things right there-the individual has changed, so his loyalty is no longer in force. But the man who has placed his loyalty on fidelity, on the sacredness of vows, on the sacredness of the idea of marriage-that it is til death do we part, will stick around and try to make things right.

Third example, a new soldier joins a unit. That very same day the unit comes under fire and the new guy is hit. The other soldiers will not leave him behind. If their loyalty was solely to this individual, they would be justified in leaving him behind, no? They have no personal relationship with him. But they are loyal to a principle-leave no man behind.

Let’s come back to the idea of family. We do crazy things for our family. Give them more chances than anyone else, sacrifice more for them than anyone else. And sometimes we don’t even like them that much. Even when we’re estranged, we’ll almost always come through for them. But why? It doesn’t make logical sense. I mean really think about it, why? But we’re loyal to the idea of family, loyal to the principle that family will do anything for family. A family member will take you in, without even knowing you, without any personal relationship with you as an individual, simply because you’re “family.”

As a final example, let’s say you had a best childhood friend who you haven’t seen for 20 years. But they call you out of the blue and need a favor. Let’s say you are willing to do that favor. Can you explain why? You might say it is because you used to be friends. But can you explain why being friends 20 years ago activates your loyalty? Why? I would say it is because you are really loyal to the idea of friendship, not necessarily to this individual man.

In short, although we are loyal to individuals, that loyalty must be ultimately rooted in a larger principle. Otherwise, our loyal will be quite fragile and quite small.

29 Sir Lancelot October 26, 2009 at 6:58 pm

“Say you’re a member of a church and the leader of the church gets caught in a scandal.”

That’s the beauty of being a Catholic. The church is above personal scandals. ;-)

30 Sir Lancelot October 26, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Loyalty to a company is still possible. Whether you work for them for 50 years or two weeks you owe your employer an honest work. I look at it from a business point of view. You as a worker are a businessman, and the company that hires you is your customer.

31 Alejandro October 26, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Yes, loyalty – like manhood in general – has taken a hard kick to the crotch in recent years. In the political and business worlds, it seems true loyalty has become akin to black and white film: quaint, but outdated and essentially useless. Fortunately, there are those among us who understand the true concept and its impact on society in general. If people are mistrustful of one another, not much gets accomplished. I am loyal to my immediate family and a few close friends because I know they won’t betray me. My loyalty to my employer is limited, though, as it is just a company, and my interests are not necessarily shared by them. Loyalty, indeed, can be tough to handle and even subjective at times. But, such truly indelible human traits always are.

32 DR.NMC October 26, 2009 at 11:30 pm

The world moves and changes faster than ever before. We now hold a cultural understanding of the world as a continuously variable environment. I think that in a world where nothing can taken for granted as being a constant, cynicism will naturally flourish. Causes, ideas, theories, and relationships (business and personal) will always evolve over time. Sometimes they evolve in such a way that they are not recognizable as what you initially invested your loyalty in. Loyalty should become void in that case.

33 Kurt Wisener October 27, 2009 at 5:03 am

Loyalty is a complex concept and no two of us will agree on all interpretations of it. We can, I think, get together on the basics though. Loyalty, like love and other core human conditions is not something you provide when convenient, it is in fact infinitely more positively impacting when maintained at inconvenient times. I am 33 and have the privilege and pleasure of loving an astounding woman. When I met her she was profoundly cynical regarding any kind of future together. She liked me but she simply didn’t trust men on any meaningful level. She had a great father and family but her older brother had gone wrong in a number of ways. He was the first in a long line of men who meant well but failed utterly in one basic area, loyalty. The men she had loved always had a band or friends or careers or even World of Warcraft accounts that she always came second to. She never demanded center stage but it would have been nice if she’d been there once in a while.

I am a flawed man who blew up a military career, two marriages, a good career in the tech field and and my basic integrity before I hit 27. I remembered each and every shameful second of my failed impersonations of manhood the second her core disturbance became clear. I decided then that the things my father had struggled so mightily to teach me, that I had so powerfully rejected to my extraordinary detriment, were abstract no longer. They were critical lessons and chief among them was loyalty. At that second I decided that my own convenience and self-serving efforts were the core of my failures and that if I wanted to have any chance at this incredible woman I needed to pull what in the tech field is called a powered shut down and reboot. I needed to pick one point of loyalty, focus on it and network threads of integrity from that point to the other damaged parts of my identity. It had to start somewhere and she was it.

I decided to simply put her first. Any friend who didn’t accept it got deleted, any woman who challenged it was politely but definitely excised from all contact, game accounts got deleted, disagreeable family was put on notice and my employer (who took it quite well actually) was advised that she, not they had my time priority as she would never abuse that priority.

I am moving tomorrow to Austin because she had to go there and I will not accept a life without her in it. She never had to ask and she is ecstatic at not having to. Oddly enough, she is now the most dedicated woman I have ever known. She never speaks ill of me, she always supports and defends me to anyone she meets. She laughs now at her former cynicism and loves me as perfectly as she can at all times. The results are incredible in other aspects of my life. Friendships have gotten stronger, time is more efficiently spent and my word means something again to good people.

It all came from one moment two short years ago when I decided to be loyal in spite of convenience and comfort. It wasn’t that hard and the rewards have not yet been calculable. Men can be a terribly beautiful thing to behold when we shave away the useless and get to the critical root of a thing, when it comes to loyalty we are almost hardwired with the stubbornness, tenacity, efficiency and single-minded intractability needed to demonstrate it effectively on a consistent time-line.

If you have ever violated your own core of loyalty and burned your integrity as a result simply find what you love most and start over with that. We’re men, we fix things, that’s our thing. My dad told me courage was simply a series of hard seconds spent deciding to do the right thing and executing on those decisions so make this second count. If you are already squared away then don’t be shy! Tell your stories to other men who may need to hear them. Loyalty to each-other as men in general is critical at a societal level and cannot exist as it should if we all pretend we are islands. We all affect other men every day. We should be mindful of that.

In closing let me leave the following simple summary. In a better world which we all deserve Male should be synonymous with integrity, loyalty and kindness. Start now.

34 Janus October 27, 2009 at 7:24 am

@Kurt Wisener: Well said. Thanks for your comments, and congratulations on getting it together, my friend!

So, my thoughts as I’ve been reading the posts.

#1 – “While the fabric that has held society together has worn thinner in our modern age, it is still loyalty that lends the cloth its strength.” Yes, thank you business owners, politicians, news media and all others who have royally betrayed those who trusted you to be loyal to them when they need you. I can name scores of people who I have known professionally and personally that put in their time with “the company”, only to get “laid off” a month before retirement, or worse, after retiring, to have their pensions cut / removed completely.

I won’t name names or parties as this isn’t a political blog, but I think we can name more than a few people on ALL sides of the political spectrum who have sold us down the river, including those who have “… solemnly [sworn] that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”

#2 – I’ve been married twice, the first marriage ended in divorce. Even though I knew without a doubt that the first marriage was not going to work out (she came right out to me and our marriage counselor that she didn’t want to be married to me any longer), I tried everything I could think of for nearly a year (it took that long for the divorce to become finalized), including asking her if we had a chance of working things out while we were waiting in divorce court on the day of the divorce. I was fiercely loyal to the idea of salvaging and restoring our marriage, even though I was well on my way to not loving her as a person or wife by the time it was all over.

Now, I find myself struggling with not having the same level / intensity of loyalty to my wife. I would never have an extramarital – NEVER in a million years. However, when things would get rocky and we would start arguing, I would find these thoughts of treason / betrayal (i.e., chucking it all and walking out the door) creeping into my thoughts. Hopefully I’m past that now, but looking back on my thoughts, I wonder if the old saying “once bitten twice shy” is at work here. My core values towards the institution of marriage haven’t changed. My parents are still together after all these years, and I know they didn’t and don’t always see eye to eye on things, so it’s not a case of learned behavior.

#3 – I recently “discovered” Facebook, and as a result have reestablished friendships with several of my elementary school mates, male and female. We were never what I would consider to be close friends, but as I reconnect with them, I find feelings of loyalty and fidelity surfacing. Even though I don’t particularly condone some of the apparent decisions they have made / are making in their lives, I still find myself subconsciously rooting for them, and wonder if they were to ask me to come to their defense if I would do so.

In closing, I used to think that greed was the root of all problems facing humanity. Now, I wonder if the problem also has something to do with infidelity in it’s root form, or betrayal and treason.

Thoughts / comments, anyone???

35 Christian October 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I read once that Dante actually saw the Divine Comedy not as an allegory, but a manual.

36 Dawn October 27, 2009 at 2:41 pm

This is the best article you guys have written yet. Thanks so much for addressing a simple value in light of todays complex evolving societal standards.

37 Mr. Miyagi October 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm

I am loyal to the NY Yankees. Go Yankees! Win the series!

38 Porter October 28, 2009 at 6:05 am

What a great conversation. I’ve read every post, and I echo the comments of so many here who have said how much they appreciate this provocative essay on loyalty –thanks for this, Brett and Kate.

I’ll see your Dante and raise you one Shakespeare, a very familiar set of lines from Hamlet (Act I, Scene 3). This is Polonius advising his son Laertes, who is leaving for college:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It seems to me that the range of excellent, thoughtful responses to “On Manly Loyalty” makes the wisdom of these Shakespearean lines apparent. If I ask myself what is truly important – those “core values,” as Brett terms them — then questions of how to handle loyalty issues in relationships or career or politics all fall into line. I can’t be false to any man.

But this takes a willingness to live with some gray areas. And we risk being unpopular when we determine values for ourselves, not accepting the “truth” handed to us by a set of scriptures or a political party or a talk-show host or an educational system or a boss or even William Shakespeare or Dante Alighieri. Something about manliness has to do with independent thought, knowing yourself, making sure it’s your “core” that chooses your “values.” That’s the best meaning of “authority.” You have it when you know who you are.

And even when you’re cool with your compass, your loyalties may not be black-and-white. Look how many good knotty problems we’re all raising. Brett, you’ve formulated a whole set of interesting scenarios in your exchange with Nik. And a lot of guys are chiming in with really heartfelt dilemmas. I feel like I spend half my life redoing or rethinking or revisiting something I would have done a different way if I’d just been true enough to myself at the outset to admit it wouldn’t work out. But instead, I got all loyal-ed up for some plan or effort or resolution or whatever, and went charging out to do it … only to realize months later that I hadn’t started with a really clear idea of who I was on the issue and what I needed to make happen.

Janus, I really hear you on the fabulous disloyalty of the corporate and political worlds we’re in today. My industry, journalism, is now a goner. The Founding Fathers could foresee governments wanting to control the free press, but not multinational corporations. So entertainment companies (Time Warner, Viacom, Disney) have bought the major news networks of my career – and a lot of us who went in loyal to the principles of genuine journalism find ourselves ordered to cover “Hollywood bad girls” and share our professional world with “citizen journalists” (the euphemism of choice for amateurs). Would you let a “citizen surgeon” take out your kid’s tonsils? Or might you not feel that your hospital had abandoned a sacred loyalty to its patients when they handed the scalpel to that hobbyist? The corporate-owned news media now are “in bad faith” with you, another cool old phrase for disloyalty, when they ditch professional rigor to invite in amateur “journalists” — because their advertisers like the audience-building effects of interactivity.

All this for me, Brett and Kate, says you’re right on the money with your criticism of the shopping mentality. It’s easier to be shoved around by fads, trends, media-inflated issues, “gurus” of this and “czars” of that than it is to get a grip and keep it. And the sheer explosion of means, modes and menus is part of the problem. No one else in human history has been exposed to as many ideas, effects, potentials, platforms, options, versions and commercially artful distractions as are crowding in on us today. (This goes back to your “Curing Your Restlessness” piece of last month.)

But rising to that challenge — turning off the Values Shopping Network and getting down to whatever really means the most inside each of us – is the only way. If we can just figure that out, just sort out what it is to be true to ourselves, then we’ll be loyal to other men, too. We’ll show them the honesty of what we are and what we respect. And maybe that’s really manly loyalty. Getting strong and straight enough to admit that in order to be loyal to anybody else, we need to learn how to be loyal to ourselves.

39 Kenny October 31, 2009 at 5:06 am

I am just thankful that there are men still pursuing a virtuous life. I am grateful for the education and challenges I receive by reading such great articles as this. I also really appreciate the dialogue amongst readers. In general, I hope that articles like this make it to more men. Tonight, I left my girlfriend to use a restroom for a matter of minutes. In that time she was harassed by the three men who sat next to us. Little boys posing as men. My girlfriend told me this after we left the restaurant, but I happened to notice that not one of the men persisted or made eye contact with me at the table. I am a 29 year old male who is completely baffled by how disrespectful some men can be to women and the men who stand by them. Where have the social standards gone? Where are the real men who know that a woman deserves to be treated with respect? As I said these are not men, but cowardly boys stuck in adult bodies. Sorry for the rant! As I said earlier, I hope that articles such as this reach the hearts and minds of more men. Thank you Brett and Kate for your great contribution to the world. Thank you for challenging me to be a better man. A man of virtue.

40 Padraig November 3, 2009 at 9:33 pm

I consider myself a very loyal person. If I am a friend to someone they have my unwaivering loyalty until the decide to be disloyal to me.

41 Caleb November 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

i loved this article. Well written. I appreciate reading the thought provoking perspectives and comments of other virtuous individuals. Man on.

Loyalty is a lifestyle. It manifests itself in all the things that you do. It becomes a measure of your integrity.

I think your question about disloyalty also provides an answer. A man has to justify being disloyal. Justification is subjective. You can justify just about anything, but if your justification flies in the face of honesty, integrity, courage, faithfulness, fortitude, strength, honor, respect, or any number of other adjectives that describe loyalty, then i think justification just becomes excuses. Loyalty is a core, or an ideal, I don’t know if it’s possible to justify your disloyalty to anyone but yourself, as loyalty is a personal decision, executed under unique circumstances.

42 chris bartlett November 5, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Just to clear a point Dante put traitors in the lowest realm of hell because he was in exile from Florence and he felt his friends where the ones who turned on him.

It doesn’t take away from the message, just wanted to clarify. please press on :)

43 Rick November 8, 2009 at 3:32 am

While I do understand the idea expressed so often her that loyalty to ones employer or company is out dated and even in some cases detrimental. I feel I must address this. Yes the days of unwavering devotion to ones company seem to be at an end. However, WHY is this? It is expressed by many that the reason for this is, that type of loyalty has so often been betrayed recently that our faith in such ideals is ruined.
While I do agree with this, I can not help but to feel that this is just a symptom of the larger problem. As a Non Commissioned Officer in the United States Army I was taught by great men that loyalty worked two ways never one. If you require loyalty from your men you must first give loyalty to them. It is not a popularity contest. I have seen loyalty of amazing proportion given to some of the hardest SOB’s around. Why? Because they were fair and honest with their men. They required hard work and dedication, but they GAVE hard work and dedication. These HARD men would not ask more than they would do themselves.

I have also seen men of character who worked for lesser men. Who gave loyalty a faithful service. Never shirking from their responsibility, striving to do their best even when they knew they could get by with less. These men taught me the true meaning of loyalty to ones self. The idea that you do not need to be loyal to the company, because the company is not loyal to you, hurts you and those who work with you. It expresses a value to your children and friends and anyone who might admire or look up to you as a man, that is selfishness. It propagates the “whats in it for me” mentality that is the cause of corporate disloyalty in the first place. Employers have an obligation to their employees, corporations have an obligation to their shareholders, and the public in general, and the government, including the bureaucracy have an obligation to the people which they serve.

These ideals have been fading from our world. This has not happened over night, it has been a gently erosion of a few grains at a time over the course of decades. It’s starts in the life of one man, the example that man sets not with words but by example, effects the future actions of many. This grows exponentially and spreads like a disease.

I say that loyalty to ones employer is best shown by simply being an honest man. Work to the best of your ability when you are at work. Do the best job you can do always. Never shortcut anything. Give the time, and skills you are paid for to your job. Take pride in your work not matter what it is. This to is loyalty to yourself and your family. If you must leave your current employer for a better wage, or greater opportunity, that is not disloyalty if you know that you gave the best while employed by them. Loyalty shown to an employer in deed and action will instill loyalty in future generations. Those who come after us will be the new CEO’s and leaders of the world. What they learn early will be the litmus that they measure their future decisions against.

Loyalty in the work place boils down to:

Keeping faith that you will perform 100% the work you are paid to do.

Keeping the secrets of the company to which you are priviliged.

Doing all things at work in the best interest of the company. This sometimes includes whistle blowing. Illegal or dangerous practices are never in the best interest of a company.

Do not talk ill of your employer to those outside of the company. It hurts the company and you.

44 Mel November 18, 2009 at 11:27 am

Awsome article on a virtue that is the king of all virtues in my opinion…my little input…be very aware of “misplaced loyalty”. It can cost you your Mission, your Men, and your Command. Believe me, I know. So, just make sure you do a moral compass check with your other core values or personal code, against what it is your loyal to.

45 Steve September 18, 2013 at 10:39 am

Great article and even better comments. Here’s mine, true loyalty should be rare and carefully dispensed. Loyalty is not conditional, based on weather or not the situation is fulfilling your needs at the moment but rather are you committed for the long run. Seems most people abandon loyalty at the first sign they are inconvenienced. Yes, review your loyalty to someone or something and make sure it is not illegal-immoral or unethical, if it is then no sense debating the point. But absent those three caveates, loyalty given should be honored and supported. Next time you need that person’s loyalty you can count on it. Getting tired of fairweather friends/spouses that bolt when they are 100% satisfied 100% of the time.

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