the crab & musket

Loyalty: a primer for my friends and family

October 24, 2017

Loyalty is not a cool idea. Its image has been tarnished by consumer loyalty programs and the party loyalty of partisan politics. But a hundred years ago, American philosopher Josiah Royce had a unique, hopeful vision of loyalty which defied its poor (even back then) reputation. I was enthralled by his ideas, because they seemed utterly relevant to life today—both to the big debates of the intelligentsia, and also to the choices myself and my friends are making for ourselves.

In 1907, in a series of lectures given at Harvard University, Royce set out to rehabilitate the idea of loyalty from its unsavoury historical baggage.1 He particularly regretted the “ancient and disastrous association” between loyalty and the nationalistic war-spirit. His thesis was that true loyalty is not only the most reliable route to a satisfying life, but is the source of all virtues.

Loyalty, Royce wrote, is the voluntary, wholehearted and active devotion of a person to a cause, a cause shared between a community of people. He believed that those living loyally have the best chance of mortal happiness. They sacrifice some of their self-autonomy in the service of a cause (or causes), but they gain so much more in return. The loyal are freed from indecision and doubt, bound tightly in a community which shares their mission, and protected from crushing ambition and the fear of failure.

In writing this article, I want to give you some understanding of what loyalty meant to Royce and what it has come to mean to me. I want to bring a new idea (or rather, an old one) into our mental toolbox, so we can more easily recognise loyalty when we see it, or see a lack of it. I want us to be fluent in this language which we’re no longer used to speaking in. It might just help us live more satisfying lives, individually and as members of communities.

I’ve divided this article into 4 main parts, which are:

  1. Loyalty redefined: Royce’s rehabilitation of loyalty
  2. The loyal life and why it is good for individuals
  3. The grand philosophical exception: how we live together loyally
  4. Some examples to make sense of it all
  5. Coda

1. Loyalty redefined

Forget what you know about “loyalty”: let’s start with a new definition. I cannot word it better than Royce himself (though I did add the bulleted formatting and emphases):

Loyalty shall mean, according to this preliminary2 definition: The willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion by a person to a cause. A man3 is loyal when,

  • first, he has some cause to which he is loyal;
  • when, secondly, he willingly and thoroughly devotes himself to this cause;
  • and when, thirdly, he expresses his devotion in some sustained and practical way.

This definition has several striking features that distinguish it from other ways of thinking about loyalty:

Causes: the objects of loyalty

The most significant piece of Royce’s rehabilitated definition of loyalty relates to causes. The three distinguishing features of a cause which can inspire true loyalty are:

  1. The cause must have personal (or selfish) value to you, the loyal follower. Royce cannot conceive of loyalty to a cause that the devotee sees as worthless. These affinities come to us naturally—those whose family has been touched by diabetes may become passionate about medical research; those who love animals have a natural desire to fight for their rights. Royce affirms these desires, and goes further:
  2. The cause must also have value outside your own self. It must be “objective” as he puts it, by potentially having value to other people. I think of it this way: if you met a stranger waiting in a café, is it plausible that they might also be interested in the cause? This “objectivity” is important because:
  3. The cause must concern others; it must be social, so that shared loyalty can bind us together with others. The possibility of having “fellow-servants” around us fulfils what Royce saw as a deep social need.

The word Royce uses to sum up these ideas is “superpersonal”. Causes are not merely personal, having value only to one person (like my career or my dog). Nor are they interpersonal, shared privately between a handful of people (as are friendships). A cause that can inspire true loyalty must be superpersonal, uniting many people together in a shared mission.

This changes our understanding of relationships that we colloquially think of as “loyal”. For example: under Royce’s definition, I cannot be “loyal” to a friend. My relationship with my friend is interpersonal, not superpersonal. I could not reasonably expect a stranger to be interested in acting with “thoroughgoing and practical devotion” purely in service of my relationship with my friend.

That’s not to say that I should not act with caring tenderness towards them, or be dependable and reliable, or consider their interests above my own or others’. Royce argues that when I act in these good ways towards my friend, I am pursuing my loyalty to the superpersonal cause of sincere friendship. The way I act upon this loyalty is by treating my friend well, but it is not to the friend that I am loyal.

When loyalty is fully embraced and expressed, Royce insists, many benefits follow, as we will explore below.

Sustained and practical devotion

Royce is firm: you cannot obtain the benefits of the loyal life by sentiment, only by action. He writes that “loyalty never means the mere emotion of love for your cause”. Love for a cause is a fine emotion to have, and should come hand-in-hand with genuine loyalty to that cause, but is not alone sufficient.

This is a vision of life in which we are all activists of a sort. Royce’s vision of society is one of active and lively engagement, where people strive for change and struggle for what they think is right. Causes which may seem academic–such as documenting history, or educating young people—are, when loyally pursued, as potent for the loyal as the revolutionary’s passion.

To me, this sounds wonderfully affirming of the good desires and passions that make our lives meaningful. But it also sounds dangerous; at this point in his lecture series, Royce stated plainly:

A loyal man, I have said, has a cause. I do not yet say that he has a good cause. He might have a bad one.4

How to tell a good cause from a bad one—a principle of discernment that prevents a society of the loyal from falling into brutal conflicts of self-interest—we will discuss in a later section.

Will and individualism

The stipulation that one must be “willingly and thoroughly” devoted ensures that we don’t mistake coercion for true loyalty. However, many traditional “loyalties” that come to mind really seem more like totalitarianism than freedom. Royce emphasises that true loyalty preserves and enhances personal autonomy, rather than erasing it:

Your only recourse [from the problem of deciding what to do with your life] is to assert your autonomy by choosing a cause, and by loyally living, and, when need be, dying for that cause. Then you will not only assert yourself by your choice of a cause, but express yourself articulately by your service. The only way to be practically autonomous is to be freely loyal.

Royce embraces the idea that free expression (and not just free, but articulate expression!) is important to the human psyche. But he maintains that the only way to really achieve that sought-after expression is sometimes not by following our own inner compass. A loyalty sometimes demands things from you that you are uncomfortable giving—but the benefits, as we are about to see, may be great.

2. The loyal life

Royce believed that, for an individual, loyalty is the only reliable way to personal satisfaction in life. The two most significant components of this loyal life are its defeat of the problem of individualism, and its resilience against failure and disappointment.

The problem of individualism

We all strive to lead lives of happiness and significance—to ourselves, or to the wider world. But we seem terrible at deciding how to actually do that.

Our hedonistic individual desire is no reliable guide to long-term happiness. And when we imitate one of the many paths to happiness suggested by the society around us, we don’t have sufficient leeway for our individual expression. Royce sees these two forces—individualistic desire and social imitation—being constantly in conflict:

These ways of the world appeal to our imitativeness, and so we learn from the other people how we ourselves are in this case to live. Yet no, this very learning often makes us aware of our personal contrast with other people, and so makes us self-conscious, individualistic, critical, rebellious; and again we are thrown back on ourselves for guidance.

Seeing the world’s way afresh, I see that it is not my way. I revive. I assert myself. My duty, I say, is my own. And so, perhaps, I go back again to my own wayward heart.

The triumph of loyalty is that once you have chosen a cause (thus expressing your individual will) you are given guidelines, examples, and social influence that frees you from indecision. It is a vision of negative liberty: freedom from natural neuroses that prevent us from living satisfied lives.

Loyalty in failure

The folklore, literature and history of humankind is full of stories of people whose ambition consumed them—whether in success or in failure. Plutarch wrote this about the death of Gaius Marius, eminent statesman and general of the Roman Republic:5

And therefore though he had lived to be seventy years old, and was the first man to be elected consul for the seventh time, and was possessed of a house and wealth which would have sufficed for many kingdoms at once, he lamented his fortune, in that he was dying before he had satisfied and completed his desires.

Not all of us are exceptional enough—or lucky enough—to have such great achievements as Marius’s to look back on and lament. Fortune has a way of dashing our meticulous plans, and even if a meritocracy existed, the sad truth is that not all of us would merit success.

Royce sees loyalty as an escape from the prison of great ambition, and from the vagaries of chance and competition. There are two ways this happens:

  1. The activity of loyally pursuing a cause is its own reward. The act of working towards a goal one sees as self-evidently worthwhile is satisfying. The binding together of one’s passion and effort with other people involved in the same cause is invigorating.
  2. The responsibility for achieving the cause’s aim does not rest on the individual. When one acts together with others, each is absolved of their individual failures.

The loyal are satisfied by the act of living loyally, every day of their lives. They also have the psychological security of an ongoing movement where success is not limited by their own effort.6

This conclusion doesn’t remove the potential for movements to have leaders. Royce believed charismatic leaders were important (if not sufficient) for inspiring true loyalty, especially in the early days of a cause. But it does support the modern view of history rather than the “great man” theory of the past. Feats great and small are not accomplished by the efforts of individuals alone, but by hosts of loyal contributors.

3. The grand philosophical exception

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy calls Royce the “grand philosophical exception” to other writers on loyalty.7 I won’t talk about some of his wildest ideas here, but I will introduce what I think is the most pertinent: the principle of loyalty to loyalty itself.

He begins his lecture series by describing the complex ethical environment we live in. We don’t just face the problem of deciding what to do with our lives, but deciding what we actually think is true and good! It would simplify our difficult philosophical predicament, he thought, if we realised loyalty was the cornerstone our moral lives could be built around.

We’ve so far discussed why Royce thought loyalty was good for individuals, but I think any useful philosophy has to seriously consider how we can live together. For Royce, answering the question of how to live in harmony meant answering the question of which causes to be loyal to. Summarising the problem, he writes:

Loyalty is a good for the loyal man; but it may be mischievous for those whom his cause assails. Conflicting loyalties may mean general social disturbances; and the fact that loyalty is good for the loyal does not of itself decide whose cause is right when various causes stand opposed to one another.

The solution is to judge our loyalties, our causes, according to whether they foster or inhibit loyalty in other humans:

And so, a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, is an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows.

(Here ‘fellows’ means all other humans, not just your friends.) If loyalty is indeed the best way for humans to live, then ‘evil’ is the destruction of loyalty, of the opportunity for loyalty. So a cause that proposes to physically enslave a set of people must be evil, because their ability to actively pursue their own loyalties is removed. A cause which demands or coerces loyalty must be evil, because part of the definition of loyalty is that it is freely exercised.

4. Some examples

So far we’ve talked about loyalty mostly in the abstract. In the interest of connecting these ideas to something that might be familiar to your life, this section will go through a number of exemplary cases of loyalty around us today.

Royce in his own work tends to use examples of loyalty that (even he acknowledges) are stereotypical:

The devotion of a patriot to his country, when this devotion leads him actually to live and perhaps to die for his country; the devotion of a martyr to his religion; the devotion of a ship’s captain to the requirements of his office when, after a disaster, he works steadily for his ship and for the saving of his ship’s company until the last possible service is accomplished, so that he is the last man to leave the ship, and is ready if need be to go down with his ship.

Fortunately it seems that most causes no longer require the loyal to die in the pursuit of their loyalty. These days you are probably more likely to encounter loyal adherents of veganism, free speech, Falun Gong, fitness, and queer rights than a ship’s captain.

Loyalty in politics

Royce does examine one historical example in some depth: the actions of William Lenthall, who was England’s Speaker of the House in 1642. When King Charles I famously demanded Lenthall reveal the whereabouts of five dissenting parliamentarians, Lenthall’s response was this:8

Your Majesty, I am the Speaker of this House, and, being such, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak save as this House shall command; and I humbly beg your Majesty’s pardon if this is the only answer that I can give to your Majesty.

The Speaker’s refusal to compromise the requirements of his office epitomises “personal dignity greater than kingship,” dignity that “any loyal man, great or humble, possesses whenever he speaks and acts in the service of his cause.”

Loyalty in politics is often confused with faithfulness to the agenda of an individual or party. While loyalty to a political party can very well satisfy Royce’s criteria, one is obliged to continually assess whether the party is a worthy cause (using the principle of loyalty to loyalty). It may be that the party line becomes too self-serving to remain truly superpersonal, or that the party aims to oppress the expression of loyalty in some other group.

This article from Slate paints a perfect picture of broken loyalty in politics:

My favorite illustration of the misguided notion of loyalty that ran rife through the Bush years was the testimony of White House Political Director Sara Taylor to the Senate committee investigating the firings of U.S. attorneys deemed insufficiently loyal. Declining to answer a question, Taylor said, “I took an oath to the president.”

“Did you mean, perhaps,” Leahy asked, “that you took an oath to the Constitution?”

The Speaker of the House, in Royce’s example, did not confuse loyalty to his office with loyalty to his King.

Politicians are vilified in the media and in casual conversations. They often speak of causes, but they act in ways that are corrupt or self-serving. It seems we all want politicians to demonstrate true loyalty… especially to the causes which we vote for them to pursue.

Loyalty in capitalism

Can you be loyal to a company? Surely if a nation-state is a fitting object of loyalty, then a large company, to which you may relate as employee or customer, could also fulfil the conditions to become a valid cause. Even outside a company, a vocation itself can be a valid cause. The Japanese concept of ikigai, Royce would argue, is a particular instance of loyalty. Ikigai gives one a template for how to pursue their vocation loyally and pragmatically.

What about a brand? We often speak of ‘brand loyalty’, but I am more inclined to think that our brand preferences are ways of expressing our loyalty to other causes. For example, I own a Fairphone because it is a (small) step towards the dream of a more compassionate economy. If they stopped pursuing that goal (or became ineffective at it), I would take my business elsewhere.

In my experience, startups frequently elicit loyalty. The fixation on ‘changing the world’, while clichéd, is often an earnest expression of a cause. At the very least, entrepreneurship itself is a worthy cause pursued by founders of even the most mundane software businesses.

I recently saw part of a documentary on the Seabin project. The interviewer asked: “What does success look like for you? … Seabin’s not going to save the world, is it?” Pete, the device’s inventor, replied:

It’s definitely not going to save the world. But it’s a start, it’s a step in the right direction of saving the world.

Pete was convinced he had found a cause which was both worthy to himself, and to the world at large. While he knew he was only part of the solution, he poured passion, time and resources into the project. The satisfaction he experienced, despite stress and struggle, seemed like exactly the sort of satisfaction Royce would want for all of us.

Loyal warfare

I begin this article, as Royce began his lectures, with the uncontroversial assertion that there was some association between loyalty and war—and that this was a bad thing for our understanding of loyalty. It is bad because often war is not conducted loyally, even though Royce would argue that it can be.

When we look at warfare and soldiering as an example, we risk falling into two traps. We may (and Royce often does) romanticise war in order to emphasise its loyal qualities. We might, on the other hand, see the qualities of war and warriors and think they are qualities of loyalty. For example, a patriotic warrior does not consider that his country may be wrong. True loyalty, on the contrary, is conditional. One might say it is wholehearted, but not wholeheaded.

A soldier can partake in the benefits of the loyal life through their service just as well as a firefighter, lawyer, janitor or stay-at-home parent. Historical warfare, however, typically fails to live up to the high standards that Royce sets for loyalty. Conscription removes the ability to loyally pursue non-violence, or in fact any other cause, and propaganda distorts our free decision-making. The violence of war itself often brings out instincts that dehumanise others, instead of treating them as fellow humans loyally striving for their own cause:

War-songs call the individual enemy evil names just because he possesses the very personal qualities that, in our own loyal fellow-countrymen, we most admire.

To the extent that war is inevitable, I believe we must try to conduct it as loyally as possible, and make the best of a bad situation. But while we might limit some of the worst excesses of war, I don’t think we will ever see a war fought with true loyalty.

Regretfully, I’ve only introduced these examples in their shallowest forms. But I hope you are now able to imagine loyalty more concretely.

Loyalty and Christian freedom

Marcus Mumford, that modern poet, summarised a Christian view of freedom succinctly in this lovely verse:

Love, it will not betray you,

Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free;

Be more like the man you were made to be

Freedom in Christianity9 is not freedom to do as you choose. It is freedom from sin, from the things that stop us from living in an ideal and truly good way. This, of course, only makes sense if there is a real, true, ideal way for humans to live (as Marcus puts it, “a design, an alignment, a cry of my heart”). In the Bible, that ideal is relationship with God and the acceptance of Christ’s saving grace, which glorifies Him and satisfies us.

Neither Jesus nor Royce promise an easy or successful life. Both, however, claim that the desires which come naturally to us are warped—not downright wrong, but somehow distorted and incapable on their own of satisfying us. Self-control, even self-denial, is as important to loyalty as it is to Christianity. The willing surrender of some of our freedom of choice allows us to overcome our broken natures and attain better things.

5. Coda

There is so much more to say on this subject than I felt would fit into this article. There are unanswered questions, loose ends that need chasing down, and thoughts radiating outwards in a glorious mind-map. Here’s one for the road: since Royce refuses to judge whether a person is acting loyally, can loyalty-to-loyalty ever succeed as a social policy?

But for now, I hope that you’ve gotten something out of this article. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve written—positive or negative, academic or emotional—I would be very grateful to hear them. I want to spark discussion. I want us to think about our lives and ideas not just through the lens of freedom, or of social justice, but through the lens of loyalty.

  1. These lectures were later collected into a book published as The Philosophy of Loyalty. Its text is available online here: [return]
  2. Royce later followed this “preliminary” definition with a metaphysical definition of loyalty: the belief in and pursuit of an absolute truth. Royce may have found this necessary—especially in opposition to the philosophy of pragmatism explored by his close friend William James—but I think his “preliminary” ideas are more than capable of holding water on their own. [return]
  3. Apologies to people excluded by Royce’s use of ‘man’ and ‘he’. Royce unfortunately defaults to the masculine, though he explicitly means to include all people. [return]
  4. Contrary to some other writers on loyalty, Royce affirms that it’s possible to be a loyal Nazi. Which is really great for them. [return]
  5. This story, apocryphal or not, is related in The Life of Marius, available online at*.html [return]
  6. Royce actually spends many pages talking about lost causes, and sees them as fulfilling an important need in the human psyche despite being doomed. [return]
  7. Despite this—or maybe because of it—they seem reluctant to quote him too often. The extent to which Royce made loyalty into a universal philosophical framework was, by his own admission, embarrassing! Stanford’s overview of Royce’s life, works, and ideas (available at is worth delving into if you are interested. [return]
  8. This was known as the the five members incident. [return]
  9. At least, in modern Western Christianity, which I am most familiar with. [return]