How Much Does Loyalty Weigh?

This post will try to explain a way of thinking about our vocational interactions in which loyalty might weigh more than intelligence.

Before the technologies of notes apps and simple word processing software were created, I collected and saved memorable quotations on notecards, using a typewriter. Then I’d file the typed and titled cards alphabetically in an old, wooden, recipe card box. In that box, in the Ls, is a card titled LOYALTY. The card contains a quotation from San Martin, “The Liberator,” whose idea about loyalty was found repurposed on a factory wall in Argentina in the 1980s. The quotation ended with “Remember: an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of intelligence.”

I can’t remember where I came across the quotation or in what context it was used, but I’m pretty sure I made the effort to capture the thought because I was intrigued by its comparative equivalency in favor of an unthinking loyalty. At the time, and until recently, I was suspicious of loyalty, especially as a tool used to manipulate people to act without thinking.

But I think I’ve changed my mind . . . in this way: I find that in my deep relationships—with special friends, colleagues, and students—I can be more helpful if my loyalty to others weighs more than being intelligent about my relationships with them.

We live in a socio-political moment in which tensions and differences are amplified, and to advocate for a higher value for loyalty can be problematic. In today’s climate, loyalty gets equated with being genuinely for or against a thing, as judged by a person who is loyally inside the cause—think of the damning “in-name-only” sobriquet.

The kind of loyalty used to measure one’s membership in a cult or party or corps is not the kind of loyalty I am espousing. Neither is it the kind of loyalty that is essentially connected to an assigned duty, although the loyalty I espouse recognizes a sense of obligation. And I’m not talking about a buzzword concept for loyalty (as in business marketing parlance), which describes the unthinking, affective loyalty that a user has for a product or service. In all those kinds of loyalty, intelligence is usually devalued for the sake of loyalty, as is suggested in the San Martin quotation.

The kind of loyalty I am thinking about is virtuous precisely because it holds intelligence in virtuous balance. (For more on loyalty as virtue, see Hannah Schell in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education.) Loyalty weighs more because loyalty precedes intelligence in moments when the other person needs intimate attention and unjudging empathy. Loyalty comes before a discerning intelligence; it makes me listen and understand first, even while I may be struggling internally with my preferences for what I think is right or correct or better or true.

I first became aware of my own priority for loyalty in the way that I approached personal preferences or choices. As a younger person, I noticed that I was loyal to a select group of artists, writers, and musicians, no matter the critical worth of a particular artifact. Regarding the things that were created by my favorite creatives, I found that I placed a higher value on loyalty to them than I did on accepted “taste,” which is a kind of critical intelligence. I realized the importance of being loyal to my preferences in a way that could situationally suspend my developing critical intelligence and expertise.

Then, later in life, having gained a lot of experience with and insight into personal relationships, I resolved privately to explore and practice the same kind of loyalty to select people. Being aware that my impulse was to lean into my intelligence in relational situations that had the potential for conflict, I foregrounded loyalty instead.

My thesis, or speculation, is that this kind of loyalty in human relationships is special because it is assigned to vocational relationships extraordinarily. You could argue that every relationship requires an ordinary degree of loyalty, but a special loyalty is created by a relationship that develops from a personal investment in trust, over time. This loyalty is special because it is not merely bound or motivated by duty but is rather attentive, thoughtful, and grounded in genuine empathy for the other person. This loyalty is not a means to positive results or to personal ease, but is an end that gives itself over to the needs of the other. This loyalty is faithful, even when intelligence might correctly discern issues or judge flaws or have critical misgivings. In my experience, this loyalty is special also because it seems to be proportionate to the needs of the other person and not to my own.

This kind of loyalty is intentional because I select the other person as an object for my loyalty. I commit myself to them, and I seek opportunities to clarity the relationship and express my loyalty. The most common expression usually involves listening completely to the other person without judging or opining about their ideas and anecdotes. Additionally, I’ve found it effective to tell the other person explicitly, “I am loyal to you.” I think it’s important for them to know that I have chosen them as the object of my loyalty and that I am being present for them.

My foundational concept for vocation is that God calls us to bend outward, in service to others. I also understand our vocations as dynamic. Thus, when loyalty is special and intentional, it doesn’t require equal reciprocity, and it’s not dependent on my own needs. Loyalty prepares itself, as Christian vocation does, to be experienced as giving, even if the getting isn’t good. The give does not seek a take. For example, giving loyalty to the other may mean that I can’t exert my own need to be critical or smart.

Loyalty prepares itself, as Christian vocation does, to be experienced as giving, even if the getting isn’t good.

Finally, there are no rules or protocols for loyalty. Loyalty is messy. Sometimes loyalty hurts or feels like suffering. It’s easy to imagine situations in which loyalty becomes a heavy burden to the subject. And since many people will always feel compelled to place a higher value on intelligence in the balance of their interactions, this kind of loyalty is not for everyone. But for those willing to place more weight on being appropriately loyal to another person, it can certainly be a virtuous undertaking—and the deeper intelligence of the interaction may reveal itself as well.

For further reading, see Hannah Schell’s posts on Josiah Royce, loyalty, and vocation and loyalty and lost causes.

Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow, having been a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Paul, click here.

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