The Vexing Virtue

"The Vexing Virtue," review of Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, by Eric Felten, Defining Ideas, 1 September 2011.


Eric Felten, an entertaining man who has written on the making of cocktails, has produced a book on the virtue of loyalty.   It is a serious book, though not conveyed in the spirit of the classroom, but as if it were introduced and accompanied by one or more of his well-conceived drinks.  If only the philosophy professors could relax and submit to the charm of Felten’s book—its nicely balanced arguments and its many examples, both everyday and literary—they might see how much it contributes to the understanding of virtue, particularly modern virtue.

Among the professors today, “virtue ethics” has come to the fore, challenging the normal methods of modern ethics that attempt either to legislate rules of behavior (utilitarians) or to formulate the logic of good will (Kantians).  These attempts seek to make virtue clear and determinate, perhaps even quantitatively measurable. Virtue ethics on the other hand returns to Aristotle, though usually without much concern for the niceties and profundities of his text.  Rather than concentrating on either virtuous behavior or virtuous motives, it looks out for both; and in both it eschews too much exactness.  Virtue ethics describes moral character, the confident habit of the moral person who does not need to calculate or check a rule-book when confronted with a moral demand but who, in the occasional surprise or emergency, human circumstances being changeable as they always have been, may find a frown on his brow and feel vexed.  Loyalty, Felten thinks, is the virtue that most often, even usually, vexes this otherwise calm character.

Loyalty is a human attachment to a particular person or thing, and primarily to another person or thing (though one can speak of loyalty to oneself).  Being particular, these are “crosswise attachments”; they easily “come into conflict.”  Some of them, one might add, invite or seek out conflict, as in the phenomenon of partisanship (not sufficiently addressed by Felten), when for example liberals and conservatives actually aim to pick a fight with one another, defining themselves against an opponent.  In these cases, conflict is not an accident but by design, and the parties offer themselves as more worthy of loyalty than any other party.

Felten first considers loyalty conflicts in the family, the “training ground” where children learn loyalty.  Conflicts can occur between family and other claims on one’s loyalty, such as work. Conflict can even occur within the family, where loyalty to one’s children can hinder loyalty to one’s brothers or one’s spouse.  When police interrogate criminals, they often seek to exploit family loyalty, sometimes by taking advantage of a parent’s or spouse’s resentment at the disloyalty of the accused.  Felten deals handily with the artificial cliché of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which sets every man against every other in selfish calculation.  This trick of sophistry depends on, and therefore encourages, the absence of loyalty either to one’s fellow or the law.  It tries to substitute for loyalty cooperation that could be withdrawn at any moment, a so-called rational but hardly reasonable arrangement.

Hoover Institution