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Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue
Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue
Eric Felten
Simon & Schuster, 2011
320 pp., 25.00

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Jeffrey Galbraith


Exploring "the vexing virtue."

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The protests of the Occupy Wall Street movement (now warming up again with the weather) provoked little fear of disloyalty. Laudably, news accounts of the movement largely refrained from characterizing the tent cities of the unwashed unemployed as un-American. This marked quite a change from the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when protest became associated with betrayal and even outright treachery. Who can forget the scorn heaped on the Dixie Chicks? Or the response of country music singer Toby Keith, beefy in his sleeveless flannel shirt, who proclaimed that protests against the war were disloyal?

If dissent does not as frequently incur the suspicion of moral corruption, perhaps the time is favorable for a more clear-eyed look at what it may mean to exercise loyalty. In Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, Eric Felten explores how forms of loyalty such as fidelity, friendship, and faithfulness can themselves lead to unethical behavior. The vexation of the title aims to capture the clumsiness of blind commitment and the impossible quandaries of multiple attachments. Yet Felten's rhetorical position is complex. Loyalty spills over into vice, yet it should still be promoted more than it currently is. Loyalty is problematic, and we can't do without it.

As a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Felten is best known to many readers for the "How's Your Drink?" feature, which ran weekly for several years. His knack for weaving bits of élite and saloon cultures into entertaining stories about the mint julep is apparent here. Loyalty is a lively read. Felten animates anecdotes and examples from antiquity to the present day in refreshing, rhythmic language. At times his gift of language works against him, as phrases become too catchy, too breezy. There's the "Jobian jam," for instance, which occurs when a person is accused of a crime and, like the biblical Job, is deserted by her supposedly loyal friends. Then there's former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, described as "moon[ing] over his Argentine cutie." At book length, the verbal pyrotechnics can have a hypnotic effect. Felten would do well to rough it up a bit, make the language less showy.

Felten thinks loyalty gets a bad reputation, while conceding that sometimes this reputation is deserved. The objects of loyalty are the likely culprits: to what or to whom should an individual be loyal? God, country, spouse, employer, organic produce—our attachments are multiple. Because they conflict, we must deliberate which should take precedence and on what grounds. Despite these difficulties, Felten remains a cheerleader for loyalty. There may not be "one easy formula" for determining the point at which loyalty to a friend should outweigh loyalty to family or society, but the reader should not lose heart, as "there's been no shortage of strategies proposed to limit the number of soul-battering loyalties let loose in the bumper-car pavilion at one time." Just don't go down the path of novelist Graham Greene, who famously "renounced loyalty altogether."

Loyalty's primary method is the application of canonical examples to contemporary mores and recent events. Felten raises issues primarily to leave them unresolved, creating more of a commonplace book than a compelling argument. The number and combination of examples are the book's strongest attribute. Obama becomes a Prince Hal figure, for instance, with Jeremiah Wright the Falstaff whom he must betray to assume the mantle of power. In particular, I enjoyed the mash-up of Great Books and celebrity gossip in the chapter on marriage, "For Better or Worse." There Felten cites verses from Edmund Spenser and William Blake in a discussion of John Edwards' betrayal of his long-suffering wife.

Strange, intriguing juxtapositions lurk around every corner. We hear about Agamemnon's tragic decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, as an example of when political loyalties take precedence over the bonds of kinship. A few pages later, Felten explores a counterexample in the form of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Felten recalls Agamemnon in order to declaim against Kantian ethics; the next moment, he's using Don Corleone's allegiance to family as an illustration of Burkean conservatism.

Throughout, Felten remains an optimist, open to complexity. As a form of altruism, loyalty may take the form of a conditioned reflex, but the author casts this unthinking quality in favorable terms. Our progress in loyalty is a matter of "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." That adjective "reflexive" cuts two ways. The mechanical nature of habit is balanced elsewhere by Felten's desire that loyalty arise spontaneously, as the culmination of a process in which the individual reflects on his or her commitments in light of history and tradition. In this, Felten's message is backed up by the book's method. The run-through of classical tradition models for readers the intended process of reflection and hoped-for inculcation.

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