Loyalty has been considered as a noble value since ages. But defining loyalty is not easy and understanding its true nature is even more difficult. Dictionaries leave much to be desired when consulted for a meaning of the concept. Loyalty is suggested as anything ranging from devotion to faithfulness to even blind trust towards persons, regions, religions, etc. Some philosophers believe that it is strictly interpersonal and only human beings can be the object of loyalty. Law and political science consider it as fidelity of an individual to a nation, king or kingdom. But these definitions hardly do anything to clear the haze that surrounds the concept of loyalty. And there is another question — can there be dual loyalty? Difficult to resolve as this dilemma is usually a classical case of an approach-approach conflict. But more than finding out the basic nature of loyalty what we need to discuss is the critical issue of loyalty as a value vs loyalty as a virtue. Often, people consider these as synonymous. But we need to go deep into the concepts of a value and a virtue. While value is a cause one strives for, something close to one’s heart, virtues are innate moral qualities within people that support individual moral excellence. Thus values can be the goal but virtues are the means to attain the goal. Thus, though not always, there can be a conflict between a value and a virtue. A value is an individually, culturally or organisationally accepted norm. But it is not necessary that it may always be a virtue. Examples ranging from Ku Klux Klan to the modern day Islamic State are ample indications to suggest that a value cannot always be a virtue. Ramayana throws a beautiful illustration about this through the dialogue between Ravana’s brothers Kumbhakaran and Vibhishan. While the essence of Kumbhakaran’s argument to dissuade Vibhishan from joining Rama is based on loyalty as a value, Vibhishan’s stand contradicts this establishing primacy of virtue based on righteousness that can override loyalty. So, loyalty can be a value if it is blended with the right cause but it cannot always be a virtue. In the Mahabharata war this has been emphasised time and again. While value has more of emotional content, virtue is largely ethical in nature. Though Vibhishan is looked down upon and his unfaithfulness to his brother has brought a kind of eternal stigma to the name as used in Hindi idioms and phrases, the fact is that he was more an embodiment of virtue rather than treachery and deceit. Judgment and context then are the essence of this debate between loyalty as a value versus loyalty as a virtue. Human beings are supposed to be thinking beings whose judgments need to be based on righteous decisions and judicious observation of a situation. It is not necessary that loyalty as a value may be at odds with loyalty as a virtue, but there is a subtle difference that needs to be understood. If loyalty is backed with right cause it is a virtue to be cherished, but if it is loyalty for the sake of loyalty without any consideration for the right and the wrong it becomes a vice. Both means and ends are important and rationality lies in exercising the right choice between where to be loyal and when to defy. The moral judgment of course is based on a very highly developed sense of maturity.
Pathak is a professor of management, writer, and an acclaimed public speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com