I’ve been uneasy at this column by Stephen Asma in the NY Times ever since I read it. The passage that disturbed me is a portion of the column where he discusses the futility of trying to extend a feeling of care beyond a relatively small circle (friends, family, and groups with which one identifies). The crucial passage is about the virtues of loyalty:
Cultivating loyalty is no small thing. George Orwell, for example, considered preferential loyalty to be the “essence of being human.” Critiquing Gandhi’s recommendation — that we must have no close friendships or exclusive loves because these will introduce loyalty and favoritism, preventing us from loving everyone equally — Orwell retorted that “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty … and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”
In general we have circles of favorites (family, friends, allies) and we mutually protect one another, even when such devotion disadvantages us personally. But the interesting thing about loyalty is that it ignores both merit-based fairness and equality-based fairness. It’s not premised on optimal conditions. You need to have my back, even when I’m sometimes wrong. You need to have my back, even when I sometimes screw up the job. And I have to extend the same loyalty to you. That kind of pro-social risky virtue happens more among favorites.
This seems to argue that the actions of covering up for the “wrong” behavior of Jerry Sandusky out of loyalty to Penn State and/or its football program is virtuous, or the Catholic hierarchy is protecting the pedophile priests because of their loyalty to the Church. It excuses the “blue wall of silence” that protects misbehavior—even criminal behavior—by fellow police officers (and the vicious persecution of those in the force who expose such behavior). On a larger scal, it makes racism a virtue, and nationalism as well.
I somehow don’t believe that he’s thought this through very well.