Loyalty : The Vexing Virtue

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2012-04-17
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster

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A witty, provocative, story-filled inquiry into the indispensable virtue of loyaltya tricky ideal that gets tangled and compromised when loyalties collide (as they inevitably do), but a virtue the author, a prizewinning columnist for The Wall Street Journal, says is as essential as it is impossible. Felten illustrates the push and pull of loyalties from the ancient Greeks to Facebookwith stories and scenarios in which conflicting would-be moral trump cards trap the unlucky in painful ethical dilemmas. The foundation of our greatest satisfactions in life, loyalty also proves to be the root of much misery. Can we escape the excruciating predicaments when loyalties are at loggerheads? Can we avoid betraying and being betrayed? When looking for love and friendshipthe things that make life worthwhilewe are looking for loyalty. Who can we count on? And who can count on us? These are the essential (and uncomfortable) questions loyalty poses. Loyalty and betrayal are the stuff of the great stories that move us: Agamemnon, Huck Finn, Brutus, Antigone, Judas. When is loyalty right, and when does the virtue become a vice? As Felten writes in his thoughtful and entertaining book, loyalty is vexing. It forces us to choose who and what counts most in our livesfrom siding with one friend over another to favoring our own children over others. It forces us to confront the conflicting claims of fidelity to country, community, company, church, and even ourselves. Loyalty demands we make decisions that define who we are.

Author Biography

Eric Felten writes The Wall Street Journal’s well-regarded culture column, “Postmodern Times.” For four years, he wrote the Wall Street Journal’s celebrated cocktail column, “How’s Your Drink?,” which won a Beard Foundation award for Best Newspaper Writing on Wine, Spirits, or Beer. A jazz singer and trombonist, his TV concert special has been seen on PBS stations nationwide. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and three children.


The Power of Loyalty

“A steadfast soul shows that Fortune has no power over it.”


End up in some dismal hellhole, and you’d better hope you’ve got a buddy at your side. For the survivors of the Bataan Death March loyalties made the difference between living and dying. Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines were packed into miasmic POW camps such as the wretched Cabanatuan compound. Crowded into squalid jungle huts, the men withered on starvation rations of stale rice; slaving in the blazing heat, they were beaten for sport; any offense that piqued the guards got one bound and beheaded. Chances of survival were a little better than fifty-fifty, and those who did make it were the ones who had a pal to lean on. Without someone to watch your back and buck you up, your chances were next to nil.

And yet there was at Cabanatuan a prominent counterexample, an army captain who was one of the most popular men in the camp, friends with everyone, but buddies with no one. A crack bridge player, he taught the game to anyone who wanted a distraction from the miserable tedium; he had a knack for telling mouthwatering tales of the hidden restaurants of San Francisco, transporting his fellow prisoners in delicious reveries of imagined food. He “made those days more endurable, for he was ever an optimist,” recalled his fellow POW Frank Grady. “He had survived Bataan and had endured the Death March. He seemed to be the one man the Japanese couldn’t vanquish.”1

What made the captain remarkable was that he had managed to survive without any particularly close friend among his fellow prisoners. For most of the emaciated men, having a buddy was a matter of life and death. Scuffling to survive, the POWs didn’t always play by Hoyle with one another, especially in the early chaotic days of their confinement. As Grady told it in his account of the Japanese prison camps, Surviving the Day, the men had to compete to stay alive: “This competitive attitude was expressed most often in the theft of food or valuables from a neighbor. But it also displayed itself in fiercely loyal partnerships between prisoners.”2 The man who had a buddy had a competitive advantage: the two of them together had a much better chance of hanging on to what measly scraps of food they could scrounge.

A loyal pair of buddies acted as a unit. The men in these partnerships provided each other something even more important than protection from the predations of fellow prisoners: They gave emotional support essential in an environment where going into a funk was lethal. The men were always sick, plagued with chronic dysentery, lethargic with beriberi, delirious with malaria, and spindly with malnutrition. But for all the manifest afflictions, if a man could somehow keep his spirits up, he could make it another day. Buddies “helped each other through dangerous emotional states,” Grady wrote. Despair meant death. Only the determined lived; and only the loyal stayed determined.

Theirs was hardly a new predicament. During the Civil War, the best chance any Union soldier had of surviving the dreaded Confederate prison camp Andersonville was to have surrendered along with some loyal comrades. “If one was captured alone, put with strangers and became sick,” wrote one Union prisoner of war, Lucius Barber, “it was ten chances to one he would die unattended by any human being.”3

But then, how did the seemingly self-sufficient captain at Cabanatuan hold out and hold on so successfully? It turns out that his “strength came from his relationship with his wife, whom he adored. She was his ‘buddy,’ and no one could replace her.”4 She had been with him in the Philippines when Japan invaded and she had been taken to a women’s prison camp. And then one day the Filipino underground got news to him that his wife had suffered a mental collapse and had been dragged off to a psych ward from which no one returned. The captain crumbled: “His independence worked well enough when his spirits were even,” Grady wrote, “but when he faced an emotional crisis, he had no partner to buoy him up.”5 Two days later, he was semiconscious in the Zero Ward, the halfway hut where dying men waited for their turn with the burial detail. Grady and his buddy, Joe, tried to cheer him up, tried to boost his spirits with happy talk. But it was no use. The unvanquishable captain was dead in days.

Loyalty can be an essential lifeline. We often talk metaphorically about loyalty being a “bond” that ties us together. But metaphorical tethers don’t bind us if we don’t want to be bound. Life is full of Sirens singing, and as Odysseus found, it pays to be tied with something sturdier than good intentions. Mountaineers working as a team are literally tied to one another. It works as more than just a safety net: It changes how everyone thinks about the climb. You can make bolder, more daring efforts knowing you’ll be caught if you fall. And at every step you are more attentive to the predicaments of your teammates, knowing they could drag you off the cliff with them. If good fences make for good neighbors, sturdy rope makes for sturdy friends on a mountainside.

A realization of that point must have gone through the minds of the climbers dangling from Pete Schoening’s rope in a blizzard in August 1953. Eight Americans had been trying to scale the preposterously perilous Himalayan peak K2 when one of them, Art Gilkey, developed a blood clot in his leg. Unless they got him down the mountain, and quick, he was going to die. Saving the incapacitated climber meant terrible risks for the other men, who had to carry him in conditions that were treacherous for a skilled climber carrying nothing but his own pack. As they worked down the Abruzzi Ridge, one man, whose frostbitten fingers were too stiff to maintain his grip, slipped. He seemed to cartwheel down the luge-slick forty-five-degree slope, his gloves flying off his flailing hands, his shredded pack tearing loose, until in a second he was over the cliff and gone. That would have been the end for the unlucky climber but for the nylon rope that connected him to the men above — a rope that nearly killed them all. As the first man plummeted, he pulled another climber over with him. The weight of those two yanked a third, fourth, and fifth off the side of the mountain, sending them careening in a mad jumble down the icy slope to the precipice.

Up above, holding on to Gilkey, was Schoening. His end of the rope was tied to an ice axe jammed behind a boulder. As the others slid off the mountain, the nylon line started whipping past him. Schoening could have let the ice axe bear the violent yank that was coming when the rope went taut. It might even have held. Instead, in an instant he got under the rope, wrapping it over his shoulders and under his arms. He anchored his feet and, heaving up against the tightening rope, stopped their fall. Without letting go of Gilkey, Schoening bore the weight of all five men, the farthest of whom was 150 feet below. In a blinding snowstorm, he held fast as the battered men tangled far below came to their senses, realized they weren’t dead after all, and scrambled up the line to safety. Schoening’s remarkable rescue is known among mountaineers as “The Belay.” And the climber’s art of “belaying” is a compelling example of loyalty made concrete.

Some forty-three years later, journalist Jon Krakauer was one of dozens of tourists paying to make a Himalayan climb, this one up Mount Everest. Not only weren’t they a team, they barely knew one another. Each had paid $65,000 to attempt the summit, and each was focused on his or her personal quest. “I felt disconnected from the climbers around me — emotionally, spiritually, physically — to a degree I hadn’t experienced on any previous expedition,” Krakauer wrote of the night before they would begin their final climb to the top. “Although in a few hours we would leave camp as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty.”6

There have been many theories attempting to explain why eight people died on the mountain that next day — the clouds settling over the summit that, together with a fierce pelting snow, reduced visibility to a few feet; a freak weather pattern that caused the already paltry high-altitude oxygen level to drop; the climbers were amateurs, there not because they had earned a spot on an expedition, but because they had paid for the privilege. But any and all of those causes could have been overcome if the climbers had stuck together.

Loyalty is more than just a matter of working together, more than just the obvious observation that people can often achieve greater things by pooling their efforts. Loyalty is about being reliable. Sometimes that helps a group effort, but it can also empower individuals. Sure, we can do more when working together. But I can also accomplish more all by myself if I know I’ve got someone watching my back. Imagine deciding whether to walk a tightrope. You’d be wise not even to try it unless there’s a net underneath. But with the net, you’re willing to give it a go. If you cross to the other side without falling, you could say that the net didn’t, in any direct way, help you walk the tightrope. And yet, though you may not have used the net, it was there if you needed it to save you, and that’s what made it possible to try in the first place. The net is empowering. Loyalty is what makes us hold the net taut for our friends. Even if they never need us to catch them, our friends are empowered by the knowledge that we’re there. That is, as long as we can be trusted to catch them as promised. If we can’t be relied on to keep a tight grip on it, then the net is worse than useless. If people act on the expectation that a net will be there for them, they find out one way or another only when they’ve actually fallen. And so the net can build confidence only if we can have confidence in the men holding the net, which is why we lavish such praise on people who are reliable.

“When men climb on a great mountain together, the rope between them is more than a mere physical aid to the ascent,” wrote Charles Houston, one of the men who had dangled at the end of Pete Schoening’s line. The rope connecting climbers “is a symbol of men banded together in a common effort of will and strength,” fighting “against their only true enemies: inertia, cowardice, greed, ignorance, and all weaknesses of the spirit.”7

LOYALTY IS THE stuff that binds men together when their lives are in the balance. Which is why no one puts more stock in loyalty than men at war.

Armies have long understood that when it comes to steeling soldiers against the temptation to run away, loyalty is the ticket. But what sort of loyalty? It isn’t primarily a matter of fidelity to king, country, or creed. It is the bonds of loyalty soldiers have to their comrades that forge an effective fighting force. Economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn, doing statistical analysis of what made for successful military units in the Civil War, compared the effect of group loyalty, ideology, and leadership and found that “Group loyalty was more than twice as important as ideology and six times as important as leadership.”8 A unit with a fine officer but in which the men had no commitment to one another was a bust. A platoon made up of pals from some small town could fight effectively, even if burdened with a lousy commander. Emancipatory fervor would help keep Union soldiers from fleeing, and love of Mississippi or Virginia might embolden rebs to heroics, but those big-picture ideological loyalties couldn’t compare with the motivation that came from sticking with the man by your side.

The same held true in World War II, even though the war was one of the world’s great ideological contests, with at least the Western contingent of the Allies fighting for freedom as opposed to the enslavement offered by fascism. Even the patriotic enthusiasms of the Good War turned out to be less compelling for men at arms than their loyalties to one another. According to Costa and Kahn, “during World War II group loyalty was almost three times as important as ideology and fourteen times as important as [the quality of] leadership” in accounting for the success, unit cohesion, and “combat motivation” of soldiers.

Elite army units in ancient Greece and Sparta were built around buddy loyalties. Teenagers would be paired with grizzled veterans, and it is a measure of what these relationships entailed that the grown man was known as an erastes, or “lover,” and the boy an eromenos, or “beloved.” In old Japan, samurai and their apprentices were also bound together by affections not sanctioned by the old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”9

But for a time, modern armies downplayed the loyalties men in battle have for their comrades. Big-picture loyalties to country or king were emphasized, courage and glory were extolled, and the professionalism of the day put a premium on unthinking, unhesitating obedience to orders from one’s superiors. And that worked well enough up through the Napoleonic Wars, when you didn’t have to wonder if your fellow soldiers were with you. The men stood in ranks, shoulder to shoulder. But then a nineteenth-century French colonel, Charles Ardant du Picq, noticed that, as modern battles became less regimented and more chaotic, soldiers could no longer see their comrades for all the smoke and confusion. “Cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation,” Ardant du Picq wrote. How then to overcome the bewildering and enervating sensation that one was fighting on one’s own? Colonel Ardant du Picq made a forceful and influential case that the answer was loyalty — the emboldening confidence that, even if you couldn’t see the men of your platoon, you knew they were there and wouldn’t let you down. Soldier-to-soldier loyalty emerged as the key military virtue, a quality that in modern military terminology would be called a “force multiplier.”

Ardant du Picq argued that without the confidence that came from having loyal men at your side, courage had its limits. “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion,” he wrote. “Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.” Confidence in one’s fellow soldiers trumps fear, making a unit effective. The French colonel was convinced that the moral force, or morale, built on mutual loyalties was so empowering it would help an army overcome bigger and better-armed foes: “In battle, two moral forces, even more than two material forces, are in conflict,” the colonel wrote. “The stronger conquers.”10

Ardant du Picq’s classic 1880 text, Battle Studies, was published posthumously. He was killed in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War when the material force of the Prussian army — in the form of a well-aimed artillery shell — proved to be too much for the colonel’s moral force. The power of loyalty has its limits. Alas, such was not the thinking of the French brass, who in the Great War were in thrall of an unnuanced interpretation of Ardant du Picq’s philosophy. They thought that loyalty to one’s comrades would make men willing to mount bayonet charges across no-man’s-land, and that the sight of such a charge would send the enemy fleeing. It didn’t work out that way. Empowering as loyalty may be, you can’t count on it to keep you safe in the face of an enemy’s superior firepower.

The U.S. Marines have always been about loyalty — what is Semper Fi, after all, but a pledge of endless fidelity. And at the battlefield level, that is expressed most vividly in the commitment never to leave a fallen man behind, whether wounded or dead. So successful has that doctrine been for the marines that the army has adopted it as well. Loyalty is a core value of the army’s “Warrior Ethos,” and an essential part of the Soldier’s Creed, which all recruits learn to recite. “I will never leave a fallen comrade,” they pledge.

The army’s emphasis on loyalty got started after World War I as the military tried to find a way to encourage initiative and creative thinking without undermining obedience to orders. Loyalty was seen as the solution, opening up room for soldiers to improvise a bit as long as it was understood that the goal was always to fulfill a loyal obligation to the intent of their orders. 11 Ever since World War II, when the army turned to psychologists and sociologists to analyze what would keep men fighting, the U.S. military has focused primarily on the loyalties men have to one another.

Army Air Force psychiatrists Roy Grinker and John Spiegel argued that the will to fight was rooted in “the intense loyalty” soldiers have to one another in small combat groups. “The men are now fighting for each other and develop guilty feelings if they let each other down.” They found that men fought more for each other than they did against the enemy. 12Even more influential in military circles was the work of Morris Janowitz and Edward Shils, sociologists who concluded that for men in battle, fighting spirit was a matter of “group cohesion,” and groups were held together by loyalty to comrades, not by ideology or patriotic fervor or any quest for glory.

A historian who rose to the rank of colonel during the war, S.L.A. Marshall, wrote that it is “one of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade.”13 As the grunts he studied proved, “Men do not fight for a cause but because they do not want to let their comrades down.”14

In the first months of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Americans fighting there bucked this conventional wisdom, with a high number of soldiers saying they were motivated to fight as payback for 9/11. But as the war dragged out into an ugly and endless guerrilla conflict — and as the argument that the war had anything to do with 9/11 became rather less compelling — troops fell back on that simplest of wartime truths. “We weren’t fighting for anybody else but ourselves,” said one American soldier in Iraq in 2005, “we were just fighting for each other.”15

Stephen Ambrose, in his portrait of Airborne Rangers fighting in World War II, Band of Brothers, recounts how often the wounded men of Easy Company would connive to get out of hospital and back to the front. It wasn’t because they were hopped up on anti-Hun propaganda and eager to kill Germans. Private Rod Strohl had been back recovering from a wound for months when he wheedled a one-day pass from his doctors. He hitched a ride to the field where the rest of the company was getting ready to board a plane from which they would jump behind enemy lines. His captain warned him that by leaving hospital he was “going to be AWOL.” Strohl didn’t care: “He wasn’t going to let his buddies go into action without him.”16

Then there was “Popeye” Wynn, who caught it in the backside on D-day, earning himself a respite on nice white sheets in Wales. He learned that if he were away from his unit for three months, once he was fit for duty he would be sent to whatever company needed a replacement. And so he got himself released from the hospital days ahead of the deadline so that he could rejoin Easy, heading out to fight in Holland. He had to stand the whole flight, “as he was too sore to sit.”17Popeye had the right idea. Because, even as a battle-tested soldier, if he found himself a stranger in a new unit, his prospects for survival would have been grim. He would have been a “replacement,” which meant going into combat without any buddies. It’s not that one wouldn’t get any help — but one couldn’t count on it. The men of Easy Company, for example, never bothered to learn their replacements’ names, “as they expected them to be gone shortly.”18 Gone, as in no longer alive. “Men, I now know, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another.” That’s how popular biographer William Manchester explained why he sneaked out of his hospital bed to join the buddies he described as “my family, my home,” men who were still up on the front lines. Manchester had been wounded at Okinawa, and could have sat out the end of the war in safety, but that would have meant he wasn’t there for his pals. “They had never let me down, and I couldn’t do it to them.”

There’s a cynical case to make that such loyalty is just a snare, a delusion contrived and exploited by the powers-that-be to get men to sacrifice themselves. No doubt loyalty is to a military’s advantage — it keeps men from running away. And what’s in the army’s interest isn’t necessarily in the individual soldier’s interest — staying on the battlefield isn’t exactly a savvy strategy for someone who wishes to maximize his own chances of survival. Loyalty keeps you fighting, and that means loyalty can get you killed.

Then again, traditionally, desertion and cowardice can get you killed too, so perhaps relying on your mates isn’t such a bad idea after all. If your officers are stupid enough to send you over the top in a suicidal dash at a machine gun, loyalty, powerful as it is, may not help you very much. But in most conflicts, your best chance to make it through is to have reliable people on either side of you. And that means you have to be reliable yourself. For loyalty is fundamentally reciprocal, and reliability is all about delivering on your part of the bargain when it matters, usually at a moment when there is no one or no way to force you to deliver. “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself,” says Kambei Shimada, the leader of the itinerant mercenaries in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Seven Samurai. He’s teaching a rabble of farmers how to defend themselves against a ruthless gang of bandits. Having weapons and knowing how to use them is all well and good, but unless every man is committed to giving his life for the others, every one of them is doomed: “If you think only of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.”

Or, as William Manchester put it: “Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die, is not a man at all. He is truly damned.”

DOES THE MILITARY’S attachment to loyalty have anything to teach us? Or is it just a specialized combat tool, like a foldable shovel, without much in the way of civilian application? Political scientist Samuel Huntington thought it did. Writing in the mid-fifties, he looked at the random assemblage of buildings in the little town of Highland Falls, next to West Point, and compared them (unfavorably) to the “ordered serenity” of the United States Military Academy. He didn’t much like the motley, “garish individualism” of the average citizens, living their discordant lives of “small-town commercialism.” Theirs, he suggests, were small lives, undisciplined, unfulfilled, and lacking purpose. What a contrast Huntington found with the men of West Point, who enjoy the peace, serenity, and security that comes “when collective will supplants individual whim.” You could say that, in these two worlds, Huntington saw a clash of civilizations. 19 He concluded that the military values — the first and foremost being loyalty—“are the ones America most needs today.”20

Huntington’s case for army-style loyalty may not exactly be the most compelling. He saw loyalty as an antidote to American individualism, a way to put “an emphasis upon the collective aspect of human affairs, since common loyalty is the basis of group existence.”21 However, I rather like some of my individual whims and I can’t say I’m eager to give them up for the pleasure of submitting to some collective will. We don’t have to embrace collectivism to enjoy the benefits of loyal relationships, big and small. We don’t have to embrace selflessness for its own ascetic sake. The American tradition is neither to reject the good that comes from self-sacrifice nor to worship self-sacrifice as an end in and of itself. Eminently practical, we don’t generally go in for any of the hair-shirt business so attractive to some moral traditions. And at the opposite extreme, for most of us, the passion for Ayn Rand’s brand of self-satisfied libertarian egoism rarely extends beyond a puerile undergraduate infatuation with The Fountainhead. Ours has long been a modest but effective sort of moral code, one that Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood.”

American moralists, Tocqueville noted, were unwilling to challenge the prevailing notion that it is good to be selfcentered, and so they generally tried to show that “working for the happiness of all would be to the advantage of each citizen.” Plenty of examples could be found where “individual self-interest happens to coincide and merge with the interest of all,” and by highlighting those instances Americans have traditionally bolstered the belief “that man helps himself by serving others and that doing good serves his own interest.”22This might not be the most ennobling of moral theories, but Tocqueville thought it was, on balance, the most effective. Not a grand aesthetic of virtue focused on celebrating the beauty of a pure soul, but “enlightened self-love,” is the best bet for inspiring average men to behave decently, Tocqueville argues. 23

Often, the best way to achieve my own best interests is to pursue what’s best for some group of which I’m a part. But even if I recognize that my overall well-being is best served by pursuing the common good, temptations to defect — to sell out the common good for immediate, personal gratification — are always hopping by. Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells of a group of men who go hunting deer. To get the big game, every man “must abide faithfully by his post.”24 But then along comes a rabbit. Any one of the men can bag the bunny without help from the others. Chasing the hare, though, means scotching the others’ chance to take the stag. The overall benefit of taking the deer is far greater than the small, individual return on chasing the rabbit. But if the hunter who spots the bunny makes a strictly rational calculation, he’ll break ranks — a rabbit in the hand being worth more than a fractional share of a speculative deer in the woods. But of course, if the men are always chasing after every hare that hops along, they never fell a stag, and never enjoy the bigger payday.

We need a way to guarantee that no one leaves his post. Unless we can credibly commit ourselves, our larger enterprises come unwound and our “self-interest properly understood” suffers. Loyalty is the tie that binds us together and holds us back when we’d like to chase after rabbits. By restraining us from pursuing some of our immediate, self-interested options, it can make bigger options possible.

Commitments that can’t be counted on aren’t commitments. And a world in which there aren’t reliable commitments is a very inefficient and expensive one. To be loyal is to fulfill your part of what are usually informal social bargains. It’s not unlike paying a credit card debt. With easy bankruptcy and other consumer protections that make one able to walk away from debt, it makes it harder to enforce the bargain. That means banks don’t want to give credit unless you’ve proven yourself creditworthy — reliable. (And banks that don’t pay attention to creditworthiness end up sinking in pools of toxic debt.) Loyalty works the same way. By proving yourself trustworthy and reliable, people can enter into reciprocal relationships with you without fear you’ll stiff them when your turn to pay comes along. But if we can’t expect people to live up to their obligations, we have to find ways to enforce our agreements. If a handshake isn’t good enough to guarantee both parties to a deal will deliver, then they need an official contract. But legal contracts are costly, time-consuming, and often result in agreements that are inflexible. And of course, no matter how carefully constructed, contracts can still be broken, which means the time, expense, and uncertainty of litigation to enforce the terms — not to mention of the costs of the courts.

Enforceable contracts may be miracles of social organization, but they are awkward and inefficient. Honesty and reliability achieve the same things, but without all the expense and rigidity. Vigilance takes effort that could be put into more productive, creative endeavors. And so, in strict economic terms, being trustworthy is valuable. Hasidic Jews have traditionally had an advantage in the diamond trade by staffing their businesses with loyal family members, which means spending less time and money on preventing losses. Just think of how much money companies spend every year trying to keep their own employees from robbing them. The revenues of the Pinkerton types, with their stop-loss prevention plans, is testament to how little loyalty there is — and how valuable loyalty can be.

LOYALTY MIGHT BE valuable, but is it viable? The Prisoner’s Dilemma, one of the most basic paradoxes employed by the peculiar study of psychology known as game theory, assumes that loyalty is too flimsy a reed to affect anyone’s thinking or behavior. The paradox goes like this: Two conspirators have been captured by the police, but the cops have no hard evidence against them. The prisoners are separated, and encouraged to rat each other out. Here’s the deal each is offered: 1) If you turn state’s evidence and your pal doesn’t, he gets ten years and you go free right away; 2) If you incriminate your pal and he also incriminates you, both of you get seven years in jail; 3) If you don’t incriminate your pal but he incriminates you, you take the whole rap and do ten years’ time; 4) If neither of you talks, both of you will be held for questioning for six months. The best deal for the pair is for both of them to keep their mouths shut — that is, their collective imprisonment would add up to just one year. But the strictly rational incentive is for each man to betray his buddy. Imagine you are one of the prisoners. Let’s say you guess that your buddy is going to betray you: If you do the same, you get only seven years instead of ten. Let’s say you guess that your buddy is no fink: It’s still in your interest to fink on him — you get to walk away today instead of sitting in a cell for six months. Each man, acting strictly rationally, will talk. The paradox is that each acting strictly rationally ends up with both of them getting seven years when they could have both been out in six months.

For half a century, the Prisoner’s Dilemma — with its perplexing demonstration of the bad outcomes rational behavior can produce — has been one of the most studied phenomena in social psychology. Strategists have played out the paradox in a string of computerized matchups, searching for a strategy that would succeed. It turns out that the most successful strategy ever mounted in these competitions was one based on giving loyalty a try. The winning player was the one who would refuse, in the first round, to betray his co-conspirator. But if he were betrayed himself, on the next turn, he would also betray. If on that turn he wasn’t betrayed, he would return to the loyal position for the next round. The interesting thing about the success of this “tit for tat” strategy was that it worked only when the player was willing to make loyalty his first move. 25

Being loyal may work, but is it irrational? The school of rational-choice theory holds not only that people act on calculations of self-interest, but that they are right to do so, that calculating self-interest is the very definition of rationality. To buck the incentives built into the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to behave irrationally, in this view. That’s what makes the tit-for-tat strategy such an appealing conundrum for philosophers: Hey, how crazy is it that the best strategy is not to think strategically?!

But it turns out that people regularly act in ways that don’t fit with the predictions of rational-choice theory. Perhaps that’s because the average Joe is a bad strategist, either because he doesn’t understand the nature of the game he’s playing or because he can’t do the math. Or maybe we should think twice before putting too much weight on the game theorists’ notions of rationality. I was introduced to the Prisoner’s Dilemma in a course on game theory at Harvard taught by one of the fathers of the field, the quirky, Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. I remember the class: Having drawn the matrix with its sets of payoffs on the chalkboard, Schelling asked what the right move was for either of the prisoners. There were a few stumbling stabs at it by the students quickest to put their hands up, but they didn’t immediately grasp the basic calculation that whatever prisoner number 2 does, it is always the rational play for prisoner 1 to betray him, and vice versa.

The problem wasn’t an inability to do the math, but rather that we students were bringing attitudes to the problem that didn’t fit easily in the mathematical model being used. Most of us have an instinctive distaste for the notion of betraying a pal, and that makes the “rational” way to play the game unattractive. When we first try to play the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there are more variables affecting our thinking than just how long one’s stretch in the pokey is going to be. How will I be able to look myself in the mirror if I sell out my pal? What will he think of me? How will our friends treat me if they find out I ratted? These are all considerations outside of the simple matrix contrived for purposes of the dilemma. They may be emotional considerations, but they clearly affect how people behave in the real world, and even how people approach games that have specifically been constructed to get people to toss their emotional baggage overboard. As political scientist S. M. Amadae notes, “It turns out to be the case that people who have not been exposed to the logic of rational-choice theory do not readily [choose to betray one another in the Prisoner’s Dilemma], even when paired with strangers.”26

What does it mean that most people have to be taught the rational way to play the Prisoner’s Dilemma? Is it that we’re hopelessly muddled in our thinking? Or perhaps the theoretical model of calculating self-interest doesn’t capture everything that goes into our deliberations. We could try to save the rational-choice model by calling various emotions “payoffs.” For example, take a man who acts in a way that seems to be contrary to his self-interest. His willingness to make a self less sacrifice earns him the respect of others. Perhaps he takes pleasure from being the object of respect, and so what appears to be a sacrifice is actually a self-interested effort by the man to maximize his preferred sort of pleasure. It’s not a crazy idea. But it isn’t a very good fit with our own experience.

When we act from loyalty we aren’t making a calculation, we’re stubbornly ignoring it. It is the paradox of the virtues that undoes the paradox of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: In order to pursue our larger interests we have to learn how to ignore our immediate self-interest. And that means learning reflexive habits — virtues—that push us to behave in certain ways, even when those actions don’t add up in any immediate calculation of rational self-interest. (Vices — reflexive habits that flummox our rational judgments — act in much the same way as virtues, then, but with the difference that they are habits that defeat our long-term self-interests rather than promoting them.)

A real-world version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma plays out every day in precinct rooms across the country. Even when offered a sweet deal by the police, suspects aren’t eager to flip. Partly this is because, in the real world, the matrix of self-interested calculation is complicated by rewards and punishments not included in the simple theoretical version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Selling out a pal may spare you jail time, but may also cost you a beating or worse. Inner-city gangs have established a sort of public-service-announcement campaign to instruct the community on the wages of informing. “Snitches get stitches” is the slogan — and it’s more than a slogan.

Even those who are not the target of gang intimidation regularly resist police prodding to give up information that might incriminate their friends, their lovers, or their families. But it is friends, lovers, and family members who usually have the most damning evidence to offer about a suspect. Modern interrogation has been built on the premise that the only thing standing in the way of a nice quick bust are the misguided loyalties of the perp’s pals. The Miranda mentality, with its Supreme Court-ordered emphasis on protecting the rights of the accused, doesn’t let the cops use rubber hoses to overcome the force of those loyalties, and so psychological jujitsu has taken its place. The method is known as the Reid Technique, named after one of its inventors, John E. Reid, who developed the technique in the 1940s with colleagues from the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Chicago. Anyone who has ever watched a TV cop show has a passing familiarity with its basics, which include browbeating suspects with relentless accusations, denying them any chance to deny guilt, and offering them, as their only respite, opportunities to make face-saving confessions. But those the police presume to be guilty aren’t the only ones who face a barrage of accusations. Witnesses who refuse to cooperate, especially those suspected of trying to protect someone, must be broken too.

That can’t be done as long as the potential witnesses are buttressed with loyalties. And so the “investigator should seek to break the bond of loyalty between the subject and the offender,” counsels the primary textbook in the Reid Technique, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. The first order of business is to get the person being interviewed alone — no friends, no family, no lawyers — so that there is no one around to give or demand loyal support. Then one gets down to the serious business of doing whatever it takes to smash the subject’s loyalties.

One basic ploy is to convince the person being questioned that the “offender” has himself been disloyal, thus encouraging a little of the tit-for-tat endorsed by game theorists. If “a subject who is the mistress of the offender” is being interrogated, the Reid method suggests the police should tell her “that the offender was unfaithful to her and in love with another woman (whose true or fictitious name should be given).” If that doesn’t work, the interrogator is to remember that “There is one consideration that a subject of this type is likely to place above all others: the protection of his own interest and welfare.” And so the policeman is urged to accuse the person being interviewed of having committed the crime: “A witness or other prospective informant, thus faced with a false accusation, may be motivated to abandon his efforts to protect the offender.”

Our first reaction to this technique may well be distaste with a method of questioning that is none too fussy about the finer points of truth-telling. (Many critics of the Reid Technique have argued that interrogators wielding lies are just as likely to cudgel out false confessions as true ones.) But it is a measure of the basic power of loyalty that police have to go to such unpleasant lengths to break it down.

Is loyalty — exploited as it is by criminal organizations — as hurtful as it is helpful? Can we think of it as a virtue at all? The thug who is worried about what those in his gang think of him, who doesn’t want to rat on his pals, is one who is exercising a capacity for loyalty. The object of his loyalty may not be admirable or socially beneficial. We may need to break up that loyalty to break up the gang. And yet whether we encounter them in novels or in the newspaper, we have a grudging admiration for the crooks who abide by some sort of personal code. Perhaps that’s because criminals who have no loyalties are even scarier than those who are capable of organizing. They are the ones the psychological literature tags as psychopaths: “They cannot be relied on, they make unnecessary trouble” for their criminal cohorts, writes Robert Rieber. Though “they may be useful for carrying out specific acts of an unusually unseemly nature, there is no question of obtaining their long-term loyalty.”27 The criminal who is incapable of feeling loyalty goes in the most dangerous of diagnostic typologies, the “unprincipled psychopath.”28 And so maybe we embrace loyalty as a potent virtue even in a criminal context — it keeps the garden-variety crook from becoming an unfettered monster.

LOYALTY MAY BE stupid and it may be irrational, but its stubborn indifference to rational calculation is its very strength. But there is another way in which loyalty, by not being overburdened with rationality, is powerful. “Irrational” is one way to describe someone not behaving rationally, but another, more common tag for describing those who have abandoned the cool serenity of logic is “emotional.” And when it comes to motivating action, the emotions have it all over reason.

Among modern moral philosophers, Immanuel Kant has perhaps been the most influential. He put forward an ethics grounded in the purest sort of reasoning, a “Categorical Imperative” that demands we act according to only those rules that can be applied as universal laws. There isn’t much room for the emotions in this metaphysics of morality. Feeling something to be “right” isn’t a moral judgment, according to the Kantian school, but just an expression “comparable to a cry of horror or of grief.”29 The problem for the Kantians, though, has always been the question of motivation. Even if pure, practical reason can arrive at a determination of what is right and what is wrong, how does that actually get anyone to do the right thing? Kant urges us to do our duty solely for the sake of doing our duty. It’s an awfully austere notion, and one that isn’t likely to inspire much practical action.

Such is the age-old conflict between reason and the emotions: Intellect informs us to behave in one way, while the passions push us to act in another way altogether. Not surprisingly, most intellectual accounts of this conflict favor the role of intellect, lamenting that emotion is a destructive force that bullies our higher, better selves. Reason is portrayed as the angel on one shoulder, counseling that which is right; passion is the guy with the horns and pitchfork. But of course, in that old comic shtick, it is the little devil that usually gets the better of the scuffle: He, after all, is urging the waverer to go with his desires, to do what his passions are already pushing him to do. Reason, locked in endless battle with desire, clearly has its work cut out for it. Loyalty, by contrast, not only gives us some sense of the right things to do, but moves us to action.

“The emotional character of loyalty,” wrote philosopher Judith Shklar, “sets it apart from obligation.”30 We may recognize that we have obligations determined by various rules, and we may even have justified those rules through careful reasoning from foundational principles. But obligations, however strong the case for them might be, always have a way of feeling foreign. Obligation is always imposing its demands on us, endlessly barking, You must do this, you must do that. Loyalty, by contrast, is an emotional response; it wells up inside of us and carries us along. We don’t argue our way into loyalty, we feel it.

Joseph Alexander Leighton, a philosopher with a religious bent writing nearly a century ago, argued that “feelings furnish the strongest and most enduring motives to action. They are the most lasting incitements to will.”31 Robert Frank, a modern economist studying, among other things, how people act when put in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, arrived at the same conclusion: “Feelings and emotions, apparently, are the proximate causes of most behaviors.”32 Frank makes the case that the emotions, by overriding strict calculations of immediate self-interest, not only make it possible for us to act in ways that secure our broader, longer-term goals, but give us a good shove in that direction.

Loyalty may be the rope that keeps us from tumbling off the side of life’s mountain, but this powerful and potent a life-saving tool has its risks. If we have even a small circle of friends and family, even the most modest of attachments to community and country, the lines attached to our waists proliferate. And with every rope we add, the odds get worse that we’ll have to catch someone (or worse, that someone else’s fall will pull us over the edge too). But that’s just the price of insurance — as the benefits go up, so too do the costs. The real problem is that as we add more lines, the ropes we’re counting on to break our fall can get easily fouled, snagging one another in the sort of impossible knots known to kids whose kites get crosswise. If we’re going to enjoy the benefits of loyalty, we’re going to have to learn to untangle the mess to which our multiple, muddled loyalties are prone. It may mean trying to belay with ropes looped in jumbles worthy of Celtic knotwork.

© 2011 Eric Felten

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