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Giles Fraser: Loyalty — or an obligation?

I WAS introduced to Clare Short MP at a function last week, where she was talking about having to give evidence to the Iraq War inquiry in January. Ms Short, you will recall, resigned the Labour whip in 2004 in protest at the war. Speaking to her got me thinking: to what extent is loyalty a virtue, and what are its limits?

These big questions seemed relev­ant to me because, like many others at the moment, I also struggle with the limits of loyalty to an organ­isation — the Church — that does a num­ber of things of which I am not proud.

The liberal moral tradition, whose primary representatives we may regard as Immanuel Kant and, more recently, John Rawls, recognise two basic forms of moral respons­ibility. There is, first, the moral responsibility that we have to people in general; and, second, the moral responsibility that issues from hav­ing made some sort of voluntary agree­ment or promise.

The communitarian critique of the liberal tradition argues that there is a third category of moral obliga­tion: the obligation to one’s tribe, one’s group, one’s nation, one’s family. This third form of moral ob­ligation is not simply a voluntary undertaking, but is a response to some given in which we participate before we have any ability to choose.

It is in the terms of this third category that we are properly to under­stand our moral obligation to our parents (as distinct from some­body else’s), or the moral obligations to our country, or to a Church into which one was baptised as a child. Pure liberals do not recog­nise this third category as legitimate. That, I think, is why Kant and Rawls ulti­mately offer such a narrow, abstract account of moral respons­ibility.

I am not a liberal in the Kantian and Rawlsian sense, because I think there is real moral weight to the privileging of community, family, country, and, yes, even one’s own Church. For example: it makes moral sense to me that I support my own elderly relatives financially rather than someone else’s — even though I did not choose those relatives. This is the proper ethics of loyalty.

Yet you can also be too loyal. In 1856, Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife: “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” He was offered leadership of the Union army; yet, out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia, he chose to lead the armies of the Confederacy. Here is an instance when the first form of moral obligation — to humanity in general — conflicts with the moral obligations of loyalty.

I have expressed all this in a secular way, I know. Still, many of us in the Church, from all sides of opinion, need to reflect on these important dilemmas. Loyalty has real moral weight. But it can blind us to other moral obligations, too. Therein lies the rub.

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