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  • Loyalty versus Fidelity:A Study in Moral Pluralism
  • Bernard Yack (bio)

many of the most familiar moral dilemmas revolve around expressions or expectations of loyalty. Yet these internal moral conflicts remain poorly understood even after we stop dismissing loyalty as little more than an extended form of selfishness or partisanship. Both ordinary and philosophic speech tend to conflate loyalty with another virtue that it resembles: fidelity or faithfulness.1 That makes it hard to make sense of the many moral conflicts that grow out of a confrontation between the competing demands that these two virtues impose on us. So this paper begins by constructing a clear distinction between them. It then goes on to compare and contrast the different kinds of moral conflict that attachment to these two moral virtues can produce: between competing objects of loyalty, between competing objects of fidelity, and, most importantly, between objects of loyalty and objects of fidelity. And it concludes by drawing on Western literature's most famous portrait of moral conflict, Sophocles's Antigone, to illustrate the significance of the tensions between these two virtues.

To be clear from the outset: the distinctions I draw in this paper are phenomenological and conceptual in nature rather than reflections of ordinary language. Though I make use of many idiomatic expressions that point in their direction, I do not pretend that they represent the way in which we ordinarily talk about loyalty and fidelity, let alone imagine myself correcting our everyday use of these terms. I am interested, instead, in developing solid conceptual distinctions that will help us articulate moral phenomena that, I suspect, are already quite familiar to almost all of us. [End Page 671]


although we tend to use terms like loyalty, fidelity, and faithfulness interchangeably, we do so in ways that suggest that we have two distinct forms of behavior in mind when invoking them. Consider, for example, the characteristics we have in mind when praising a "faithful spouse." Are we imagining spouses who can be counted on to stand by their partners through sickness, financial setback, and public scandal? Or are we thinking about spouses who resist temptation and remain committed to their vows to remain monogamous? Clearly, the expression "faithful spouse" calls both to mind. "Keeping the faith," after all, can mean either remaining true to one's word or doggedly supporting the old gang, two ways of behaving that we often find in the same individual but do not necessarily go together. Some spouses who remain firm in their commitment to marital fidelity show no interest in standing by the partners whose scandalous behavior has humiliated them both. And others who casually betray that commitment faithfully support the individuals who have put them in such a humiliating situation.

Alternatively, ask yourself what qualities we have in mind when speaking of "a higher loyalty," as James Comey (2018) does in the book he wrote to justify defying his boss, President Trump. Do we mean the determination to stand by a broader or more morally significant group or individual than the one currently demanding our loyalty—our fellow Americans rather than our president or our party, humanity rather than our fellow Americans, God rather than humankind? Or the determination to meet higher obligations than the ones demanded of us—duties imposed by our office rather than those imposed by the person who appointed us, by the Constitution rather than current legal authorities, by some higher understanding of morality rather than the Constitution? Comey was certainly invoking both these senses of a higher loyalty, since he assumed that the American people, to whom he pledged his loyalty over his president, share his loyalty to the Constitution over the duties imposed by his present political superiors. But we cannot always count on the convergence of these two senses of loyalty. Loyalty to some body of rules [End Page 672] and obligations, such as the Constitution, may demand disloyalty to a group of people who feel unfairly constrained by them.

In order to distinguish the two moral virtues suggested by these examples, I shall reserve the term "loyalty" for the determination to stand by persons,2 while reserving "fidelity" or "faithfulness" for the determination...


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pp. 671-694
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