Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A scout's virtues: loyalty

This is the second in a series in which I think out loud about the content of the 1911 Scout Handbook. These are not necessarily my final views. I'm just trying out some thoughts to see how they feel. To see the whole series, click on Be a Scout?
He is loyal to all to whom loyalty is due: his scout leader, his home, and parents and country.
Notice the qualification: "loyal to all to whom loyalty is due". I made this point last time because it is always the case with virtues. They cannot be reduced to rules because any set of rules will be too narrow. If Kant had tried qualifying truth telling to deal with even a small fraction of the circumstances that life's vicissitudes toss up, he would have reduced his moral rule to nothing. That is precisely why he argued, insanely but coherently, that we should tell the truth to everyone regardless of the circumstances.

To be loyal then, is loyal to those who are due loyalty. Let's contrast that with courtesy. You should be courteous to, among others, the weak, meaning both the physically and the morally weak. It would not be appropriate or virtuous to be loyal to the morally weak.

Loyalty also reminds us that virtues are part of a social system. Loyalty only works if the people you are loyal to understand that it is part of a social system of moral obligations. This isn't just a matter of mutual benefit like the grade schooler's selfish argument that you should tell the truth to others so that they will tell the truth to you. Rather, the entire social system relies on it. That is why ingroups where loyalty runs deep are so different from other groups.

This weekend, I left my wallet with all my credit cards, along with my iPhone and my iPad alone in a room with about twenty people and went for a forty-minute hike. As you've probably guessed, the people were all family members and their partners. And it's important to note here that thefts do happen among family. A good friend of mine ran the same risk about twenty years ago and one of his nephews cleared out his wallet to buy drugs. Conversely, you might get away with leaving your valuables behind at a bar or coffeeshop. But we take the risk with family more often, so much so that we don't even think of it as a risk, because we can expect loyalty from family members.

As a consequence, the person who isn't loyal doesn't just hurt the person they betray; they put an entire moral system at risk.

That, now that I think of it, is also why there has to be ingroups. For I think that what makes an ingroup is not, as psychologists would have it, that we psychologically identify with a group but that we buy into a shared moral system. Once upon a time, to be a citizen required that we buy into a shared system of moral obligations. The liberal project, however, has been to build a society where the foundation is inalienable rights. But a society where only rights are shared and not moral obligations would crumble. We learn about shared moral obligations in ingroups, starting with the family and, in a liberal society, ingroups are the only source of shared moral obligations since citizenship no longer requires them.

I suspect the political consequences of this are far-reaching for loyalty is also an exclusive virtue. To be loyal to your scout leader is to be loyal to the organization and its values and not just the person in the office. To see why this is the case, think of the way some feminists defended Bill Clinton when he sexually harassed women. Was that loyalty? No. It was, at best, blind allegiance.  If loyalty is to have any meaning, then leaders who fail to live up to the standards of the group need to be mercilessly excluded from the group and only allowed back in after some sort of public penance and then only as members and not leaders.

(The Democrats and their supporters found the Republican efforts to impeach Clinton scandalous. The real scandal was that they didn't do it themselves. "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.")

Loyalty then, requires not just individuals willing to be mutually loyal but a social system. You might think, well, why can't my friend and I, or my spouse and I, agree to be loyal? Well, you can but that is only because you live in a  society where friendship and marriage are part of the agreed-upon moral system.

As I start this project, these words keep coming back to me:
It [scouting] is, in a word, a school of citizenship through woodcraft. ... Therefore, the aim of the Scout training is to replace Self with Service, to make the lads individually efficient, morally and physically, with the object of using that efficiency for the service of the community. (Robert Baden-Powell)
The usual criticism of being a boy scout type in today's society is that the values are out of date. But the reverse critique, that the values only seem out of date in a corrupted society, is equally coherent and, I think, more plausible,

No comments:

Post a Comment