is loyalty too dirty of a word?

I’m working through some thoughts regarding ethics and causes. Specifically, I’m wondering about the differences between loyalty and commitment. After reading Josiah Royce’s The Philosophy of Loyalty for a creative democracy philosophy course at Oregon State, I was moved by his discussion of loyalty as the ultimate virtue. According to Royce, all other virtues are subsumed under loyalty, and loyalty is a good virtue when you are loyal to loyalty. That is, if you are loyal to causes that do not harm others’ loyalties to their causes. Royce attempts (I think successfully for 1908) to save loyalty from the baggage it carries (the belief that loyalty means blind, unchanging loyalty to a cause, esp. a soldier’s blind loyalty). He argues that loyalty is revisable, that when presented with new evidence that your cause is harmful, or that you have to causes that conflict with each other, that you can revise your loyalty to new causes or changed causes. Ultimately, he believes that as your revise causes, you develop a lost cause, a cause that cannot be accomplished in your lifetime (loyalty to social justice would be an example).

But as I discussed this concept with a professor today, I was told this word still carries too much baggage, especially after Vietnam, Communism, Nazism, etc. Is loyalty too dirty of a word now? I’m attached to it, I think because it’s an Aristotelian virtue that I have affective connections with, more so than the term’s cousin commitment. That is, there seems to be a philosophical tradition tied to loyalty. Is there a denotative difference between loyalty and commitment? Certainly, there’s the connotative one, the one that makes loyalty a dirty word in the minds of many.

The OED defines loyalty as Faithful adherence to one’s promise, oath, word of honour, etc. and as being etymologically linked to the Latin legalem, or law. It defines commitment variously, sometimes with obligation, and defines commit (in one of its various definitions) as To pledge oneself; to make a personal commitment to a course of action, a contract, etc. So both appear to have a pledging aspect, but loyalty seems to stress faith. Is “faith” so sullied in our contemporary eyes that loyalty too is charged? Can’t faith be revisable?

Certainly, faith in some way limits us to what is counted as evidence (that our cause is harmful or not). While I like Royce’s theory of loyalty, I’m also cognizant that he does not really address epistemological problems about what counts as evidence. While loyalty is certainly affective, his discussion of revising loyalty and causes seems strongly rational—as if one can see evidence that your cause is harmful and revise your loyalty rationally based on that evidence.

I bring these up because I’ve been thinking about loyalty/commitment to an academic discipline. What does it mean to be loyal to a field? Is loyalty or commitment a good word to describe someone’s commitment (for lack of a better word) to their field? If one is loyal to a cause, does it make sense to understand academic pursuits or an academic discipline as a cause?

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8 Responses to is loyalty too dirty of a word?

  1. Dennis says:

    In a most cursory fashion, I would think the loyalty would lie not to a field, but a method of inquiry or perhaps something even broader, say some ontological or other assumptions about the world works, and that that loyalty would lead one to an acadmic discipline.

    Or, perhaps, we are getting at the same thing when we use the term “academic discipline,” and you’re not referring to loyalty to canon, as I first assumed =)

  2. Michael says:

    Oh no, I’m not referring to loyalty to a canon. Though I assume some are certainly very loyal to a canon. I was thinking more along the lines of shared methodology or shared common goals (or the pretense of shared methodology or common goals).

  3. Dennis says:

    In that case, I think we agree, at least about shared methodology. What kind of shared goals are you thinking about that run across an entire field that don’t involved methodology? Are they outcomes?

  4. Michael says:

    Composition is a field that doesn’t have a shared methodology — there are critical theorists, cognitivists, expressivists (is there a methodology for that?), feminists, and others bringing in different methodologies for, what I see, as a set of shared goals: a populace with critical literacy, the development of a writing public, however defined. Lofty goals, and perhaps a lost cause? I don’t know.

  5. Dennis says:

    Do you think those goals are shared by the field? How widely and how consciously? Does it matter?

  6. Michael says:

    No, I’m probably projecting. I’m sure there are some who don’t share those goals. Does it matter (in regards to loyalty/causes)? I don’t know.

  7. Walter Wymer says:

    Is it possible that commitment is a component or dimension of loyalty? Therefore, loyalty includes commitment, but is a construct that exists at a higher level of abstraction?

    Your discussion of the difference between loyalty and commitment assumes that they exist at the same conceptual level of abstraction.

  8. Michael says:

    Interesting, Walter. Yes, I think I would say that loyalty includes commitment. This makes sense.

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