The Psychological Impact of Loyalty

People often ask me about the virtue of loyalty. The mental health profession generally falls into line behind widely accepted virtues as a measure of mental health, so is loyalty in fact healthy, wise and good? Many people equate loyalty with integrity, i.e., consistency between your ideas/principles and your actions. Loyalty is an extension of this principle. It applies to upholding your ideals, but more specifically, loyalty concerns the people in your life who are important to you.

This is where it gets complicated: Many people choose friends and romantic partners based only on vague or unidentified feelings. Then when it comes time to be loyal (or disloyal) to friends or associates, they’re unclear about what they’re actually being loyal to. They have no guidelines other than undefinable feelings.

If someone annoys you for a trivial reason, you might back away from them without really knowing why, and regret it later. Conversely, if someone betrays you over something important, you’re lost without a set of conscious convictions to guide you; so you might stay in the relationship longer than you should, bolstered only by the vague notion that “This person has been in my life, and I shouldn’t change that now.”

Living by a set of conscious convictions and principles grants you the power to select your friends and loved ones accordingly. If you value integrity and honesty, for example, then you not only seek to practice it, but you seek out people who do the same. Ditto for any other virtue you consider important, such as intelligence, productivity, and rationality.

By consciously valuing those ideals and upholding them in daily life, then the friends and spouse you choose will be more important to you because they embody your most cherished values. In that context, loyalty is easy. And the thought of betraying someone who represents what’s important to you would be a contradiction.

Most people are not consciously principled; not deliberately bad or evil, but many are pragmatists, i.e., somebody who doesn’t hold a particularly fixed set of convictions about important matters. Such a person, either by philosophical choice (or more likely by default), goes through life making choices — about work, friendship, even romance or marriage — based on “what feels right” or “what works.” Without explicit ideas, principles or a philosophy, there’s nothing else to guide you when hard decisions must be made. It’s amazing how often things seem to boil down to this one issue when I talk to people in my office. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a choice that feels right or works, it takes more thought to build a strong case for a particular choice, especially in a significant area of life like marriage, etc.

The natural result of this way of thinking makes it difficult to practice integrity in the realm of ideas, since the pragmatist holds no fixed ideas. And loyalty is one of the first things to suffer, since the pragmatist has nothing consciously powerful to which they can be loyal. Of course, nowadays it’s socially acceptable, or “cool,” to not hold any conscious convictions “too strongly.” Or, if you must hold deep or conscious convictions, then at least don’t let anybody know about it. Not only is this shallow; it makes genuine loyalty to anybody or anything impossible because there are no concrete, significant virtues or qualities that can be used as criteria for forming true loyalty.


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