Loyalty is typically a good thing. It’s a quality that we want in our friends, family and co-workers. We might even call it a virtue.
But can it ever be dangerous?
I often had cause to ponder the nature of loyalty, both as a police chief and an officer. As a young officer, I wrestled with the concept in ethics classes. What if one of my fellow officers asked me to cover for them? What if, out of loyalty, I was expected to lie about something that happened on a crime scene or during a use-of-force situation? I was fortunate to work with a good group of guys and gals, and never had to deal with such a scenario. My time as a chief, though, gave me ample opportunity to apply these theoretical concepts in the real world. When you have some form of power (as all cops do), there will be people who want to use that power for their own ends. It may be a friend who thinks your loyalty toward them should override the traffic citation they received. It may be a powerful person in town who wants you to ensure they get a permit for an event. I’ve encountered government officials throughout my career who tried to make me use the police departments I worked for in an unethical manner. In a meeting to discuss these issues, one such boss told me that he had given me the job I enjoyed, and thus expected my “loyalty.”
Yes, loyalty can be a good thing, but it can also be downright insidious.
When loyalty is dangerous
Loyalty is a feeling, an allegiance. It’s a commitment to something or someone. There’s nothing wrong with that.
So, the appropriateness of loyalty largely depends on the object it is directed toward. Loyalty to one’s spouse is a great thing. We honor the concepts of marriage and of family when we display fidelity to our wives or husbands. Loyalty to an organization can be a good thing, too, if that organization’s mission is noble. Conversely, loyalty can be a bad thing if its object is ignoble. Being a member of a neo-Nazi group is a bad thing, no matter how loyal you might be to the group.
Loyalty also becomes dangerous when our allegiance is blind. Some of history’s greatest atrocities have been committed by soldiers who would have bragged about how loyal they were to their dictator. Unless it is directed toward God Himself, loyalty should never be without limitations.
Loyalty in public servants
The need for scrutiny of loyalty rises to a whole different level when it involves public servants. This is because the capital they deal with is not their own, and because they are responsible for the public trust. If I own a car lot, the building and vehicles are mine. If I want to give away a new Corolla to a buddy of mine, that’s OK. The car is mine to give. I’m the one suffering the loss of the Corolla.
Government officials, on the other hand, are stewards of other people’s stuff. If a commissioner wants the county to donate a chunk of money to help a buddy of his build a new business, that’s a problem. It’s not the commissioner’s money to give. He’s spending other people’s cash. If he’s going to champion the donation, he’d better be able to show that the new business will somehow benefit the community that’s paying for it.
This concept becomes even more important for those who wear a badge. The capital that police officers steward is something far more weighty than mere money. They’re responsible for matters of justice. The idea that the law should be enforced without favor is a weighty one.
The limitations of loyalty
In an ethical sense, the concept of loyalty must be approached with caution. Being committed to a cause or person is usually a noble thing, but right and wrong exist apart from that commitment. When approaching an issue that involves loyalty, we should always question what we’re being loyal toward. We should also ponder whether the loyalty we’re being asked to exercise is in conflict with other ethical considerations.
Loyalty can be a noble thing that rightly invokes sentimental feelings. But the fact that “loyalty” is such a sentimental concept also makes it prone to abuse. Doing something inappropriate will never be right, even if it’s done in the name of loyalty.