One of the standout quotes from the James Comey statement released on June 8 is President Trump asking Comey for loyalty:
“He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
The former FBI director made it clear in his statement and during his questioning before the Senate that he did not, nor did he intend, to give Trump the loyalty he wanted.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, appeared more loyal to the president during his Senate hearing. CNN reported that while it was unclear whether or not “Sessions intended to pay penance to Trump after their relationship strained over the President’s concerns that Sessions burned him by stepping aside from the Russia probe,” he did a good job of protecting the president.
Loyalty is one of the most controversial issues in ethics, especially because it can cause so many problems in practical situations. Many ethics and compliance guidelines in both government and corporate settings deal with possible consequences of loyalty, at least indirectly. We are currently seeing the implications of loyalty more and more in American politics. The question of loyalty was relevant in March when President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared were made government employees. Critics pointed out that this may be in violation with a 1967 anti-nepotism law, which states that no public official may hire or promote a relative.
Laws like this one are in place to prevent criminal consequences that may arise from loyalty. For example, if the president commits a crime and Ivanka finds out, she may allow her loyalty to her father override her duty as a government official to report the crime.
With recent events in mind, Trump’s actions are definitely questionable, especially his asking Comey for loyalty. Thankfully, we haven’t yet seen any direct evidence of the more serious ethical implication of loyalty: someone allowing loyalty to a criminal override his or her moral or legal obligation to report a crime, as in the example above.
But the issues related to loyalty in American politics say a lot about the ethics of loyalty in general. When taken out of a political or organizational context, loyalty seems to fall into more of a moral gray area, despite the principles being the same.
Consider the 2013 controversy with Phil Robertson, star of A&E’s reality show Duck Dynasty. Robertson made several homophobic remarks in an interview with the magazine GQ, such as the following:
“It seems to me, like, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: it’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
Robertson was suspended indefinitely from Duck Dynasty after coming under fire for his comments, although he returned to the show in late 2013. In 2014, his granddaughter Sadie, who also appears on the show, was a contestant on season 19 of the ABC program Dancing With the Stars. In an interview on the show, she said she supported her grandfather, and that she would have supported him no matter what he had said. “He’s my family, and family sticks together,” she said.
Many will approve of her family values. Others will argue that sticking to loyalty through anything is morally contempt. What if Phil had said something more extreme than expressing homophobic sentiment? And what if his comments had garnered more than just verbal support from her, such as action?
Why are issues like this so split, but issues like the Comey case seem so obvious? If Comey had pledged loyalty to President Trump for whatever reason and this was his reason for halting the Flynn investigation, he would be seen universally as morally and legally reprehensible, especially if there is in fact wrongdoing discovered in Robert Mueller’s probe.
We can extrapolate from the uneasiness and more obvious nature of political and corporate cases of wrongdoing to draw conclusions about the ethics of loyalty in general. When your loyalty to someone makes you commit a crime, or even simply act or speak insensitively or harmful in the way Sadie Robertson did, you are in the wrong. We would expect nothing less of Ivanka Trump in her government position. The reason anti-nepotism and loyalty-related laws are in place are to avoid putting people in the difficult situation of having to betray people they care about, as well as decreasing the likelihood that someone would get away with an infraction because the people who knew about it were devoutly loyal to him or her.
I read a book when I was in middle school that deeply affected me. It was called That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton (author of the acclaimed The Outsiders). In the story, there are two main characters, Bryon and Mark, who grow up as if they are brothers in a poor neighborhood. When Mark begins bringing home large sums of money to help support the family, Bryon discovers it is because he is dealing drugs. When Bryon’s girlfriend’s brother overdoses, Bryon calls the police on Mark, who is sent to prison. I remember being very angry at the ending, thinking that Bryon should absolutely not have sold out Mark. The author did a great job of realizing the characters, and I felt strongly attached to Mark’s motivations and so much sympathy his fate. I remember in the afterword the author wrote that she many had expressed anger at the ending of the book, and she always responded, “Great. So you get it.”
Hinton did a fantastic job illuminating the moral and emotional dilemma involved in decisions that involve loyalty. Looking back now, I know Mark made the right decision, even though the decision was not calculated. Beyond extrapolation, the argument can be made more fundamentally. The reason you are loyal to someone, is because you believe that person to be a beneficial component in your life, and you love him. Perhaps he has just the right personality traits, or the two of you have a lot in common. However, it is not the person you are loyal to. You are loyal to the idea of the person that you have in your head. The idea, the persona, that you have created based on your interactions with him.
Once he betrays you, or does something morally wrong, the idea of that person changes. To you, that person is a different person. And you don’t have to be loyal to anyone who is different from the person you gave your loyalty to, with the assumption that you are a generally moral person, and the person you pledge loyalty to you believe to be moral. This person is no longer the person you gave your loyalty to.
Loyalty may continue to be an issue with the Trump administration, if recent events prove consistent. In tumultuous times, it’s important to keep fundamental concepts of morality at the forefront, especially when the man at the top espouses such fundamentally contradictory beliefs. Hopefully, simple arguments like this will appeal to even the staunchest of Trump supporters.