Saturday, December 3, 2011

Divided loyalties

An architect represents his wealthy, suburban district in a state legislature as a member of the Republican Party. His architect colleagues have urged him to advocate for issues largely supported by the design professions, such as more compact communities, better public transit, and greater incentives for sustainable development. His Republican colleagues, though, oppose all of those ideas and expect him to vote according to their principles and positions, forcing him to decide where his loyalties lie: with his profession or his party.

The philosopher Josiah Royce argued that loyalty represents the greatest virtue because it embodies our adherence to something larger than ourselves, to an ideal or even a noble or “lost cause.” Royce recognized that evil also seeks our loyalty, as the Nazi Party showed, and he made a distinction between the “true loyalty” of people who seek the good of others, and “predatory loyalty” that destroys the ability of other individuals or communities – the Jewish community during the Nazi era, for example – to remain loyal to their own ideals.

A paradox, in other words, lies at the very heart of the concept of loyalty: it is a good thing, unless it negates the loyalties of others, in which it becomes a bad thing. The context and consequences of loyalty thus become paramount in determining its value. We literally cannot say whether or not a person’s loyalty to something is good or bad without seeing what it stems from and where it leads to. Blind loyalty to something regardless of its intentions or its effects is, in that sense, no loyalty at all.

For this architect/legislator, or anyone for that matter who has divided loyalties, Royce’s ideas can help sort out what to do. Royce makes the distinction between loyalty to an ideal supported by what he called “genuine communities,” and loyalty to groups that have vicious or destructive intentions akin to the survival of the fittest in nature, which he called “natural communities.”

When we find ourselves with divided loyalties to different groups, Royce’s argument suggests that we need to look carefully at the intentions, methods, and consequences of each community to which we hold allegiance. You could argue that both of the communities in the case of the architect/legislator have genuine features. Both the architectural community and the Republican Party have adherents who no doubt believe that their view of the future will lead to the best outcomes. While architects can make the case that walkable neighborhoods, mass transit, and sustainable development will enhance the physical health, social vitality, and environmental viability of communities, Republican politicians can also portray these as counter to the personal freedoms, economic opportunities, and property rights of individuals.

But Royce makes a distinction that can help us decide between these two world-views. He argued that communities come before individuals and that the very idea of an individual is incoherent unless viewed within the context of a group. Language, for example, only has value if others understand it; a “private language,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, literally makes no sense. The same applies to other human activities as well: those that benefit only individuals at the expense of communities do not deserve our loyalty.

The causes that these architects urged their legislative colleague to support all had community interests and collective benefits in mind, while those advocated by his party had individual rights and personal freedoms as their goal. While both sought the loyalty of this lawmaker, only one deserves it. And while supporting his profession over his party might mean political suicide, it also represents the height of loyalty: to a noble cause.

No comments:

Post a Comment