Loyalty: Good and Bad Kinds

Two articles in the June 22, 2001 issue of The Columbus Dispatch explained the importance of loyalty and some of the problems caused by declining amounts of loyalty in society.

The problems include high divorce rates, “deadbeat” dads and moms who fail to care for their children, corporate downsizing and relocations, a widening income disparity between managers and workers, job dissatisfaction, job hopping, and less participation in the political process.

Decreased loyalty has undoubtedly contributed to many personal and social problems. But in attempting to reverse this trend, it should also be recognized that loyalty can be a bad quality in some situations.

Admiral Charles R. Larson believes that loyalty has both a good side and a dark side. He says the dark side was partially responsible for the highly publicized cheating scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 1990s.

A former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Larson was made superintendent of the Academy in 1994 to restore the institution’s reputation and reform its teaching of ethics after the scandal.

Larson says loyalty to the combat unit is essential for military success. This type of loyalty involves qualities such as faithfully performing duties for the unit, keeping one’s word to members of the unit, treating them fairly, and being willing to sacrifice – even to the point of giving one’s life – for the unit’s success.

Similar beneficial qualities of loyalty can apply in family, social, business, and governmental contexts. Without loyalty among group members, the group simply can’t function as effectively.

But Larson contends that loyalty is a bad quality when interpreted to mean – as it was by some midshipmen during the cheating scandal – protecting friends who have done something wrong. This is immoral, he explains, because it puts the interests of individuals ahead of the interests of the group.

In the situation he was brought in to correct, the group was a public institution. And misplaced loyalty by group members had damaged both the institution and the country.

To avoid those outcomes, Larson teaches: “Every officer must ultimately face the fact that personal loyalty must have its limits, that one’s higher loyalty is to the institution and the nation.”

Brigadier General Malham M. Wakin, emeritus professor of professional ethics at the U.S. Air Force Academy, agrees with Larson. He remarks: “Often the obligations of professional integrity may be pitted against personal loyalties or friendships. . . . The highest loyalty is to the profession itself, and invariably that requires individuals to place their public duties above their personal relationships.”

Nevertheless, loyalty to a country or profession also has to yield to higher ethical duties in some circumstances, such as where a nation commands a person to violate human rights.

For this reason, training at the Naval Academy includes a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There, according to Larson, “midshipmen can see firsthand what can happen when misplaced loyalty, blind obedience, and a lack of concern for human dignity are taken to the extreme.”

Former Minneapolis police chief Anthony Bouza saw the harmful effects of misplaced loyalty in law enforcement. In his book Police Unbound, Bouza describes serious damage and injustice caused by “The Blue Code of Silence.” This is the unspoken agreement among many police officers that they will not report wrongdoing committed by a fellow officer or assist in bringing the officer to justice.

From seeing the evil caused by such behavior during his 36-year career as a police officer in New York City and Minneapolis, Bouza came to believe that loyalty to the public must take precedence over loyalty to coworkers and associates. Otherwise, if those persons do wrong, they are more likely to get away with it and undermine the public functions they are supposed to carry out.

As Bouza puts it: “Personal loyalty subverts group goals. Loyalty must be to broad principles – such as, ‘The good of the people is the chief law.'”

Unfortunately, few political and corporate leaders seem to be like Bouza. They loudly decry a supposed decline in “moral values.” But they rarely if ever mention the moral obligation to oppose wrongdoing committed by managers, coworkers, or friends.

Nor are they seen coming to the aid of government and corporate whistleblowers, who are often harassed, disciplined, and fired for carrying out that ethical duty.

Whistleblowers receive such treatment despite a Price Waterhouse survey indicating they expose 43% of frauds committed against corporations, whereas professional auditors find just 19%. Likewise, U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that whistleblowers expose most instances of civil fraud committed by dishonest government contractors.

These figures mean that corporate and government whistleblowers – by remaining loyal to the public – save shareholders and taxpayers billions of dollars. Yet they are frequently barbequed for doing so. When that happens, the saying “No good deed goes unpunished” seems to ring true.

Government and business leaders create at least an appearance of impropriety by keeping silent about the moral obligation of employees and other workers to oppose corruption inside organizations. Their silence sends a message that they want people to remain loyal to wrongdoers rather than possess a higher loyalty to the public by opposing corruption.

If such leaders are truly opposed to wrongdoing and have nothing to hide, they should not fear or punish whistleblowers, but instead support them wholeheartedly. Otherwise, their view of loyalty appears seriously misplaced and immoral – protecting wrongdoers, punishing those who act ethically, and harming the public.

And their claims about supporting high ethical standards would deserve the retort attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”