Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships

Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships

Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships

Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships

Synopsis

At a time when age-old political structures are crumbling, civil strife abounds, and economic uncertainty permeates the air, loyalty offers us security in our relationships with associates, friends, and family. Yet loyalty is a suspect virtue. It is not impartial. It is not blind. It violates the principles of morality that have dominated Western thought for the last two hundred years. Loyalties are also thought to be irrational and contrary to the spirit of Capitalism. In a free market society, we are encouraged to move to the competition when we are not happy. This way of thinking has invaded our personal relationships and undermined our capacities for friendship and loyalty to those who do not serve our immediate interests. As George P. Fletcher writes, it is time for loyal bonds, born of history and experience, to prevail both over impartial morality and the self-interested thinking of the market trader. In this extended essay, George P. Fletcher offers an account of loyalty that illuminates its role in our relationships with family and friends, our ties to country, and the commitment of the religious to God and their community. Fletcher opposes the traditional view of the moral self as detached from context and history. He argues instead that loyalty, not impartial detachment, should be the central feature of our moral and political lives. Writing as a political "liberal," he claims that a commitment to country is necessary to improve the lot of the poor and disadvantaged. This commitment to country may well require greater reliance on patriotic rituals in education and a reconsideration of the Supreme Court's extending the First Amendment to protect flag burning. Given the worldwide currents of parochialism and political decentralization, the task for us, Fletcher argues, is to renew our commitment to a single nation united in its diversity. Bringing to bear his expertise as a law professor, Fletcher reasons that the legal systems should defer to existing relationships of loyalty. Familial, professional, and religious loyalties should be respected as relationships beyond the limits of the law. Thus surrogate mothers should not be forced to surrender and betray their children, spouses should not be required to testify against each other in court, parents should not be prevented from willing their property to their children, and the religiously committed should not be forced to act contrary to conscience. Yet the question remains: Aren't loyalty, and particularly patriotism, dangerously one-sided? Indeed, they are, but no more than are love and friendship. The challenge, Fletcher maintains, is to overcome the distorting effects of impartial morality and to develop a morality of loyalty properly suited to our emotional and spiritual lives. Justice has its sphere, as do loyalties. In this book, Fletcher provides the first step toward a new way of thinking that recognizes the complexity of our moral and political lives.

Excerpt

The central arguments in this book were a long time in coming. If asked about the subject of loyalty some ten years ago, I undoubtedly would have reacted as many of my liberal friends react today I would have identified patriotism with the breast-beating zealots who threatened my generation with those billboards: "America, Love It or Leave It." I would have thought, ten years ago, that schoolchildren's pledging allegiance to the flag was tantamount to their reciting prayers in public schools--a clear violation of the neutrality that provides the framework for American pluralism. At the very minimum, I would have taken an ethic of loyalty to smack of the rhetoric of anti- Communist fanaticism, McCarthyism, and all the excesses that defined the enemies of free thought as I was coming of age.

It is not clear to me whether I have had a change of heart or whether a decade of greed (as Barbara Ehrenreich has dubbed the 1980s) simply made me more conscious of the moral importance of commitments to those with whom I share a common fate. in retrospect, President John F. Kennedy's inaugural appeal in 1961--"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"--rings clearly as an appeal to our national loyalty It is an appeal to responsibility that resonates with my basic sentiments far more than the ethic of self-interest that dominates current obsessions with tax cuts as the way to solve our problems.

Whatever the deep roots of my sentiments, some experiences of the last few years helped to crystallize my thought around the theme of loyalty the first was a conversation with David Hartman, a rabbi in Jerusalem, with whom I had the pleasure of studying in March and April 1987. I had explained to Rabbi Hartman that I had done most of my philosophical work on the Kantian theory of law and morality. Hartman turned to me, quizzically, and said, "Fletcher, don't you know that Kant's universalistic ethics cannot accommodate . . .

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