Personal Loyalty to Superiors in Public Service

By Souryal, Sam S.; McKay, Brian W. | Criminal Justice Ethics, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Personal Loyalty to Superiors in Public Service


Souryal, Sam S., McKay, Brian W., Criminal Justice Ethics


One must ask every man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year without being embittered?[1]

In 1993 the Journal Criminal justice Ethics took a major step toward clarifying a topic which, despite its deep roots, has proven conceptually elusive. In the journal's winter/spring issue, several scholars were engaged to reflect on the hermeneutics of loyalty developed in George P. Fletcher's book Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships.[2] The symposium made a welcome contribution to our understanding of the conceptual and moral underpinnings of loyalty, to whom it is owed, and at what price."[3]

Yet there are several issues that the symposium ignored or simply glossed over. First is the issue of workers, loyalty to superiors and administrators at the workplace. It was not made clear whether public servants owed any loyalty to the person of superiors and, if so, under what circumstances, and at what price. Second, the symposiasts repeatedly referred to loyalty and disloyalty as though they were antitheses. We do not agree, since a dichotomy in this context can exist only if two conditions are satisfied: (a) loyalty to the person of superiors is necessary within the broader subordinate-superior relationship (that is, without the former, the latter cannot be), and (b) workers are either legally or morally prohibited from being impartial that is, neither loyal nor disloyal - with respect to the person of the superior. Third, with the exception of Richards, essay on "Loyalty and the Police," there was little mention of loyalty in an organizational context, arguably the one context that can most graphically expose the "conceptual and moral underpinnings, of loyalty in action. The core of this article comprises an examination of these and other issues relating to loyalty in the organizational context.

The ideal of loyalty has its roots in the virtue of sympathy, which is at the foundation of all human experience. And loyalty continues to be at the heart of commonsense morality"[4] because of its importance to "communal and social Iife, collective enterprise, shared values, and social stability."[5] Evidence of its importance can be shown by its adaptive value: were it not so important, the process of natural selection would have worked against loyal people and in favor of disloyal ones.[6] But loyalty is not mere sympathy; otherwise it would be reducible to a feeling. We may sympathize with the people of Rwanda but that does not mean we are loyal to them. If there is any loyalty involved, it is indirectly through the principle of humanity, the obligation to assist our kind,, by aiding those who are in a crisis. The sentiment underlying this obligation is the recognition that humankind is our kind and, therefore, that the demise of any person affects us all.

Personal loyalty is more complex because it requires that we make choices and uphold commitments to specific persons for durable periods of time. Loyal people may "suspend their judgment about right and wrong"[7] and act on the basis of unsubstantiated sentiments. Examples include unquestioning loyalty to clan members, classmates, and friends. Personal loyalty also has a self-sacrificial dimension. "For the sake of the object of loyalty," loyal persons may set aside significant personal interests."[8] Gordon Liddy epitomized this when he accepted a prison sentence rather than tell the truth or attempt to defend himself.

Our intention is not to apply a wrecking ball to the ideal of loyalty - to God, country, family, spouse, friends, or even superiors if both parties agree to keep friendship or mentorship at the core of their relationship. Our intention, rather, is to call attention to the unique vulnerability of loyalty to the person of superiors in the organizational context. It is our contention that personal loyalty to superiors cannot be included in the same category as loyalty to God, to principles, to family and friends.

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