Loyalty: A lost virtue; Me-first attitude is stripping away our sense of community

Bob Harvey

The Ottawa Citizen

Loyal: 1. Steadfast in support and devotion to and never betraying the interests of one's homeland, government, or sovereign. 2. Faithful to a person, ideal or custom; constantly supporting or following. (French, from Old French loyal, loial, leial, faithful to obligations.) -- Reader's Digest Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary.

The Roman senator, Seneca, called it ``the holiest virtue in the human heart.'' For most of the 2,000 years since, few would have disagreed with his call for loyalty to the gods, to the state, to family and to duty.

But loyalty, that once-essential virtue, is fading fast, and our sense of community and identity is disappearing with it.

Recent headlines tell some of the story. Last month, actress Elizabeth Taylor filed for divorce from husband No. 8, and all it merited was a news brief. We've become used to the breakdown in marital loyalty. The Canadian divorce rate has shot up by 400 per cent since 1970.

This week, it was Wayne Gretzky who quit on a relationship. He pushed the Los Angeles Kings to trade him to the St. Louis Blues because he wants to be on a winning team. But it's not only athletes who'd rather switch than commit. In the last year, the owners of the Quebec Nordiques, the Winnipeg Jets and the Cleveland Browns have all chosen cash over their loyal fans.

Loyalty's gone in almost every sphere. Canadian voters have deserted the Tories and the New Democrats. Many Quebecois want to quit Canada. Consumers are dumping brand names. Believers are switching denominations and even bigger numbers are quitting organized religion altogether.

Today's new version of loyalty, according to people who've thought about this issue, is loyalty to self, as summed up by what was originally meant to be ironic advice to Hamlet: ``To thine own self be true.''

Philosopher Donald De Marco says what's happened is that ``we've lost the sense of a common good. We've made an invalid of loyalty.''

He says that without an accepted common good, or allegiance to something beyond the self, loyalty crumbles.

``If you're saying the highest loyalty is to self, you can't get beyond self. Therefore you're missing an essential element of loyalty. It's not a virtue to be loyal to oneself. It's a vice to be selfish,'' says De Marco, who teaches in St. Jerome's College at the University of Waterloo.

Graeme Hunter, who teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa, says that in the West, Christianity kept me-first individualism in check for hundreds of years.

``Religious commitments weren't just restricted to the sphere of the church. They affected one's whole life. You had a responsibility to your community, to your employer and to the State.''

In fact, the sacred scriptures of all the major faiths not only teach that God is loyal and faithful, but also urge we follow that divine example: ``Those who faithfully observe their trust and their covenants will inherit Paradise,'' says the Koran.

Loyalty has been valued in all cultures, as witness this 16th century advice to the Japanese samurai warrior: ``The business of the samurai consists in discharging loyal service to his master, in devoting himself to duty above all.''

But secularism and individualism are now making inroads in all cultures, and taking away not only the religious backing for loyalty to others, but also some of the cultural emphasis on it. ``If there is no God, there is no absolute foundation to anything,'' says Hunter.

The notion of loyalty began to fade first in the West in the late 19th century as exemplified by this 1889 musing by diarist Alice James: ``When will women begin to have the first glimmer that above all other loyalties is the loyalty to Truth, i.e. to yourself, that husband, children, friends and country are as nothing to that.''

Will Sweet, who teaches philosophy at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says, however, that this tendency to value self above community or duty began at least 400 years ago. Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, wrote cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) and began the shift from an emphasis on absolute values and absolute truths to an emphasis on subjectivity and the value of the individual.

A hundred years later, Adam Smith and other economists speeded up the shift to me-first individualism by teaching that if we just pursued our own economic self-interest, all would benefit. Suddenly the common good was equated with the individual good. Only now, however, are we beginning to see some of the problems with this notion, including the spread of poverty in spite of continuing increases in the production of goods.

Pollster Andrew Grenville says many aspects of modern life also contribute to the decline in loyalty. Greater prosperity makes divorce more possible when relationships break down, and technology makes it possible to market not only thousands of different products, but also thousands of different ideas.

``Instead of three options, we now have 24, and that makes it much more likely we'll switch,'' says Grenville, vice-president of the Angus Reid polling firm.

He says that along with these new choices comes a fragmentation in identities: ``All the signs are that we're hitting an identity crisis.''

Instead of identifying with our neighbors, or our nation, we're developing new micro-identities as Internet surfers or evangelical Christians that transcend old boundaries, says Grenville.

Greg Walters, who teaches ethics at Ottawa's Saint Paul University, says loyalty got a bad name during the Second World War when it became clear that not all loyalties are good loyalties. The Nazis and other totalitarian regimes made us suspicious of authority and less willing to give uncritical loyalty to a State, or an institution.

However, he says the yearning for loyalty hasn't gone away. In spite of the current high divorce rate, surveys by Alberta sociologist Reg Bibby show that 97 per cent of Canadian teens still confidently expect to marry only once, .

Technology and the breakdown of tradition have made it necessary to redefine ourselves and our loyalties, says Walters. And although we're still groping for new structures and new ways of thinking to help us to do it, he says history teaches that it's probably just a matter of time until we do.

Sweet says the resurgence of nationalism and tribalism is more evidence of this yearning for enduring connections. ``What people are doing is looking for those communities they can count on, be loyal to.'' In some nations, like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, this new assertion of tribal or national identity has turned psychopathic. In other places, like Quebec, the process is more peaceful.

He predicts that ``either we'll become more tribal, or families will become a lot tighter as we see other people as potential threats. Or else there will be a general disintegration. When the social safety net disappears, it may be every person for himself.''

Sweet is philosophical about the new strain on our loyalties. ``It's the effect of a process that's been going on for 400 years. We can't expect any sudden changes in a lifetime.''