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"Loyalty," as a moral rather than a political concept, has received scant attention in philosophical literature. In fact, at the present time [1967] it seems banished from respectable ethical discussions, owing, no doubt, to its historical association with an obsolete metaphysics (idealism) and with such odious political movements as the extreme nationalism of Nazism. However, the supposed implications suggested by these disreputable associations are ill-founded. On the contrary, loyalty is an essential ingredient in any civilized and humane system of morals.

Philosophical issues regarding loyalty may be separated into the question of the object of loyalty, and the question of the moral value of loyalty.

The Object of Loyalty

Granted that loyalty is the wholehearted devotion to an object of some kind, what kind of thing is this object? Is it an abstract entity, such as an idea or a collective being? Or is it a person or group of persons?

The idealist contends that loyalty is "the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause" (Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, p. 17). Its object is "a cause beyond your private self, greater than you are impersonal and superpersonal" (ibid., pp. 1920). As a cause it is something that transcends the individual, "an eternal reality." Apart from familiar metaphysical and logical objections to this concept of a superpersonal reality, this view has the ethical defect of postulating duties over and above our duties to individual men and groups of men. The individual is submerged and lost in this superperson not only ontologically but also morally, for it tends to dissolve our specific duties and obligations to others into a "superhuman" good.

Opposing the idealistic position is the view, characteristic of social atomism (empiricism or utilitarianism, for example), that denies any distinctive status to loyalty on the grounds that metaphysically there can be no such superpersonal entity to serve as its object. Insofar as the concept of loyalty has any validity at all, it reduces to other kinds of relations and dispositions, such as obedience or honesty. Most empiricists are inclined to agree with David Hume, however, that loyalty is a virtue that holds "less of reason, than of bigotry and superstition."

Thus, it is generally assumed that we must either accept the notion of a superperson or some other abstract entity as the object of loyalty or reject the notion of loyalty altogether as founded on an illusion. This assumption is open to question.

In answer to the idealists, it should be pointed out that in our common moral language, as well as historically, "loyalty" is taken to refer to a relationship between personsfor instance, between a lord and his vassal, between a parent and his children, or between friends. Thus, the object of loyalty is ordinarily taken to be a person or group of persons.

Loyalty is conceived as interpersonal, and it is also always specific; a man is loyal to his lord, his father, or his comrades. It is conceptually impossible to be loyal to people in general (to humanity) or to a general principle, such as justice or democracy.

The social atomist fails to recognize the special character and significance of the ties that bind individuals together and provide the basis for loyalties. Loyalty is not founded on just any casual relationship between persons, but on a specific kind of relationship or tie. The special ties involved arise from the twofold circumstance that the persons so bound are comembers of a specific group (community) distinguished by a specific common background and sharing specific interests, and are related in terms of some sort of role differentiation within that group. A friendship, a family, or such a highly organized group as a political, priestly, or military community illustrates the presence of these conditions. Special ties of this sort provide both the necessary and the sufficient conditions for a person to be a proper object of loyalty.

The impersonal or objective element mentioned by Royce and other idealists is explained by the fact that it is the ties, the mutually related roles, rather than any particular personal characteristics of the individuals involved that provide the grounds for loyalty. Why should I be loyal to X ? Because he is my R (friend, father, leader, comrade). More purely personal characteristics of X, such as his kindness, courage, amiability, honesty, or spirituality cannot serve as grounds for loyalty. That the conditions of loyalty abstract from the personal characteristics of the individuals concerned does not, of course, entail that loyalty must relate to a superpersonal entity (cause, whole) any more than the fact that an algebraic formula contains a variable within it (such as Fx ) entails that there must be some kind of supernumber to satisfy the function.

The Moral Value of Loyalty

Is loyalty something good in itself? Is it always good? Can there be bad loyalties?

On these questions the idealist takes an extreme position, for he holds that loyalty is the highest moral good. According to Royce, a man's wholehearted devotion to a cause is eo ipso good and becomes evil only when it conflicts with other loyalties. The supreme good is loyalty to loyalty: "so choose and so serve your individual cause as to secure thereby the greatest increase of loyalty amongst men" (ibid., p. 121).

The view that loyalty has an inner value, "whatever be the cause to which this man is loyal," can be used to redeem the most evil acts of men. Such a belief outrages our moral feelings, for we want to say that a cause which demands injustice or cruelty as the price of devotion renders that devotion an evil in itself. It is impossible to separate logically the moral quality of devotion from the moral quality of its object, if that object is a cause. (Incidentally, a distinction must be made between devotion to a thoroughly evil purpose and devotion that is simply misdirected, in the sense that it is well-intentioned but wrong for some other reason.)

Even assuming that the problem of bad loyalties can be resolved by invoking "loyalty to loyalty," the idealist may still be accused of turning morality, which properly concerns man's relations to his fellows, into service of an abstract principle or a cause, thus treating man as a mere means rather than as an end-in-itself.

The social atomist, on the other hand, regards the moral value of loyalty, construed as devotion or obedience to persons or institutions, entirely as a function of its benign or mischievous consequences. This view, however, robs loyalty of any special moral significance. It fails to account, for example, for the admirable side of a mother's loyalty to her son even when, considering the total picture, it is not entirely justified morally.

We must ask what loyalty demands of a person. The etymology of the word loyalty gives a clue, for it comes from the French word loi and thus means something akin to legality. Loyalty, strictly speaking, demands what is morally due the object of loyalty. A loyal subject is one who wholeheartedly devotes himself to his duties to his lord. What is due or owed is defined by the roles of the persons concerned. The fact that loyalty gives what is due also explains why we can demand the loyalty of others.

It follows that mere blind obedience to every wish of the person who is the object of loyalty is not loyalty; it is a perversion of loyalty. There is no moral value to it at all, since it is not something that is morally due. A loyal Nazi is a contradiction in terms, although a loyal German is not.

There are, to be sure, conflicts of loyalties, but this fact does not entail that any of the loyalties involved are improper or invalid. It is simply a logical consequence of the fact that there are conflicts of duties; my duty to my parents may conflict with my duty to my wife or to my fellow countrymen. Sometimes there are clear ways of resolving these conflicts and sometimes there are not, but we cannot eliminate the problem of conflicting loyalties either by a metaphysical trick or by the mechanical application of a value calculus.

One final observation must be made concerning the distinction between loyalty and fidelity. Loyalty includes fidelity in carrying out one's duties to the person or group of persons who are the object of loyalty; but it embraces more than that, for it implies an attitude, perhaps an affection or sentiment, toward such persons. Furthermore, at the very least, loyalty requires the complete subordination of one's own private interest in favor of giving what is due, and perhaps also the exclusion of other legitimate interests. In this sense, loyalty may often be one-sided, although it need not be. If we could not count on the loyalty of others or give them our loyalty, social life would be not only bleak but also impossible.

See also Atomism; Empiricism; Hume, David; Idealism; Royce, Josiah; Utilitarianism.


Aristotle. "On Friendship." In Nicomachean Ethics. Books VIII and IX.

Bryant, Sophie. "Loyalty." In James Hasting's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. VIII, 183188. New York: Scribners, 1916.

Rashdall, Hastings. Theory of Good and Evil. Vol. 1, 188 and 273. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1924. For the social atomist view of the moral value of loyalty.

Royce, Josiah. The Philosophy of Loyalty. New York, 1924.

Sidgwick, Henry. Methods of Ethics, 254. 7th ed. London, 1922. For the social atomist view of the moral value of loyalty.

John Ladd (1967)

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