The horrifying news out of Penn State has many of us talking about ethics lately, especially those of us who work in academe as I do. One of the terms I’ve heard mentioned the most is “loyalty,” as many commentators have observed that a misplaced sense of loyalty in the circumstances surrounding misdeeds often enables the accused and delays justice for all parties in the case.
If loyalty is a virtue, it’s one that I relish. Indeed, I’m trying to cultivate it in my children, because loyalty, rightly understood, is a form of grace. It overlooks the flaws in others and allows us to sustain relationships in spite of our failings and those of others.
But, loyalty, like all of the other virtues, is not a thing unto itself. It is always subordinate to an overarching integrity that is rooted in righteousness. Once it becomes primary, it ceases to be a virtue. Loyalty detached from justice is a particularly perverse vice; however, loyalty that sustains justice is demanding, in that it calls us to use our relationships to inspire confession and repentance in the pursuit of righteousness.
I interviewed for a job many years ago where I asked the prospective boss what virtue he valued most of all in his team. He focused on loyalty: “I not only expect loyalty, I demand it. Without utter loyalty, nothing progresses in this organization.” A few years later, I found out that he had been embezzling funds from the company and that his assistant managers had been involved. It’s amazing how quickly virtuous “loyalty” morphs into wicked “conspiracy.”
Charles Colson tells a story that is illustrative in How Now Shall We Live? After addressing some two thousand Marines, Colson was asked by a master sergeant, “Which is more important—loyalty or integrity?” The Marine creed is, of course, semper fi, “always faithful,” but Colson, understanding very personally the stakes of unfettered loyalty, responded, “’Integrity comes first.’ Loyalty, no matter how admirable, can be dangerous if it is invested in an unworthy cause.” (p. 379).
As a leader, I expect of my colleagues professional loyalty, but I expect it to be conditional loyalty: it goes only as far as my integrity and righteousness allow. When I fail in either instance, I have broken whatever covenant for loyalty I have entered into with my colleagues. To be loyal to me in such a circumstance would be to supplant loyalty with its perverted cousin, conspiracy.
Conspiracy goes way back in human history, all the way back to Eden, when Adam and Eve exchanged their righteousness for corrupted loyalty toward one another, entering into a thin conspiracy to cover their loss of righteousness. Sinfulness never changes, does it?