Honesty and Loyalty in the Trump-Comey affair

Pledges are empty promises.
Honest, loyal people don’t have to swear that’s what they are

Fresno Bee, June 16, 2017

James Comey swears President Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Comey offered honesty. Trump said he would accept “honest loyalty.”

After Comey testified before Congress, the president accused him of lying. Trump said, “I hardly know the man, I’m not gonna say I want you to pledge allegiance, who would do that, who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath?” Trump has offered to testify under oath about his version of things.

What is “honest loyalty”? And what lessons can we learn from this fascinating piece of political theater?

One lesson is to be suspicious of oaths and loyalty pledges. Perjury is not prevented by promising to tell the truth. In some cases, the more a person swears to God, the less we ought to trust them. Nor is loyalty guaranteed by a pledge of allegiance.

Oaths and pledges are least effective when they matter most. Scoundrels affirm bald-faced lies. Traitors are eager to pledge allegiance. Hypocrites and rogues cover their tracks with honeyed words and perfumed promises. And even decent people occasionally fudge the facts in order to get out of a jam.

In the long run, verbal assurances mean less than a consistent pattern of truthful, loyal behavior. Honest and loyal people remain faithful and true, without needing to swear that they are.

-Hannah Arendt

The complaint against oaths and pledges is an old one. The ancient Jews and early Christians refused to pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some contemporary Christians continue to avoid swearing oaths, basing this on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches there that you should simply say yes or no, without swearing an oath.

Protestant reformers took this seriously. In 1635 Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts for criticizing the colony’s loyalty oath. He thought it was wrong to force people to swear allegiance in the name of God and to invoke God’s name with regard to civil matters. After his banishment from Massachusetts he founded the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for religious dissenters.

In the 1650s the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained that “an oath adds nothing to an obligation.” If we have an obligation we ought to keep it. An oath will not make a bad man keep his promises.

William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, had a similar idea. In 1679 he explained, “He that is a knave, was never made honest by an oath. Nor is it an oath, but honesty, that keeps honest men such.” Penn concluded that oaths have “often ensnared a good man but never caught one knave yet.”

And what about loyalty? Philosophers have roundly criticized unquestioning loyalty. In the middle of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism rested upon morally deficient loyalty. She said, “total loyalty is only possible when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content.” Fidelity without morality leaves the loyal person subject to the immoral whims of a party or person.

-Thomas Hobbes

A further problem is that fawning toadies pledge loyalty as a way of sucking up. Ingratiating flatterers offer worshipful praise, currying favor by lying and exaggerating. Flatterers and sycophants have been roundly mocked by moralists. The Roman essayist Plutarch called them “parasites” and enemies of truth. He says that flatterers ruined Rome, since they encouraged rulers like Nero to behave without dignity.

Plutarch noted that excessive self-love makes us susceptible to flattery. Those who are infatuated with themselves believe what flatterers tell them, no matter how absurd. That is why flattery undermines truth and wisdom.

The solution, of course, is self-examination, devotion to virtue, loyalty to the truth, and honest friendship. True friends speak the truth, without “paint and varnish,” as Plutarch put it, because they love us and want us to be better. True friendship is both loyal and honest.

In political life, truth and loyalty are always in dispute – as the Comey-Trump feud shows us. But in ordinary life, honesty, loyalty, and friendship help us live well. We need honest and loyal friends. But friendship should be freely given. It is not assured by an oath or pledge. Promises and flattering words are mere idle talk. What matters is the quality of our characters, not the quantity of hot air we produce.


Loyalty and Tragedy in Politics

Trump campaign is like Greek tragedy

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2016

  • Loyalty is a virtue that can become a vice
  • Loyalty should not be mechanical, bigoted, or provincial
  • Donald Trump pledged loyalty to the GOP

Rival Republican candidates pledged to support the party’s nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. But some Republicans are thinking of jumping ship.

GOP 2016 TrumpTrump has complained that his loyalty has not been reciprocated. He warned of riots if the party were to deny him the nomination. Will those Republicans who denounced Trump in recent weeks remain loyal?

It seems that we are witnessing a Greek tragedy in which conflicting loyalties generate pathos, pity and fear. The current morality play points to the perennial ethical question of loyalty and its value.

In tragedy, the hero proudly declares her loyalty in opposition to some other person’s cause. Each side becomes recalcitrant. Violence looms. The crisis is resolved with the downfall of the characters, and in some cases the demise of the political establishment itself.

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. Committing to something gives meaning and purpose to existence. Our loyalties shape our lives. But dogmatic loyalty is as dangerous as treachery.

Consider the problem of the loyal gangster. Sincere loyalty is not praiseworthy when the cause is a bad one, even though we understand the power of gangland loyalty.

We also empathize with the faithful wife who stands by her man despite his philandering. We appreciate the love of a devoted father who protects a criminal child. And we recognize a kind of virtue in the steadfast soldier whose loyalty is abused by immoral armies and iniquitous empires.

Loyalty leads to moral disaster when people support causes that they should abandon. Mechanical fidelity is not really loyalty. Loyalty requires intentional commitment and ongoing reflection. It is not praiseworthy to go along with traditional allegiances because of inertia. Habitual loyalty is unworthy of a thinking person.


Unthinking loyalty is a kind of bigotry. Loyalists can be blinded by their allegiance, biased against those who have other loyalties. For that reason, loyalty often seems to be an old-fashioned virtue incompatible with democratic values and the idea of toleration.

Loyalty becomes bigoted when combined with stubborn pride, what the Greeks called hubris. Loyal persons identify with the object of their allegiance. When the team does well, we feel proud. But when our party is attacked, we take it personally. Wounded pride easily becomes indignant and sometimes violent.

About a hundred years ago, the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote a book extolling loyalty as devotion that gives form to life. In fidelity to a cause, Royce said, life becomes real, solid, and active. An individual without loyalties would be a blank, apathetic shadow.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why people can be seduced by false or evil causes. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. In some cases, the content of the cause is less important than the longing for loyalty. Royce suggested that the cure for intolerant loyalty is to respect other people’s loyalties. He celebrated the idea of loyalty to loyalty itself.

One of Royce’s students, Alain Locke, extended this analysis further. Locke is an important African American philosopher, known as the philosophical father of the Harlem Renaissance. It is easy to imagine, with African American history in mind, how loyalty is connected to racism by way of so-called “race loyalty.”

Locke distinguished proper loyalty from unjustifiable prejudice. He wanted “value loyalty” without “value bigotry.” Locke dreamed of a pluralistic commitment to values that was not dogmatic or intolerant. He wanted us to overcome sectarian fanaticism and narrow provincialism by calling for a cosmopolitan sort of loyalty to loyalty.

Nearly a century later, Locke’s pluralistic paradise has yet to be created. Racial division still plagues us. Our loyalties remain provincial. Hubris haunts our politics. And bigotry divides us.

A better understanding of loyalty could help. Human beings need loyalty. But loyalty is not a stand-alone virtue. It is connected to all of the rest of our values. Those values transcend party affiliation and the temporary allegiances of political expedience.

Loyalty must be tempered by justice, moderation, and wisdom. Loyalty provides a rudder through changing seas. But misplaced loyalty can be an anchor that inhibits critical thinking and common sense. And sometimes it is wiser to abandon ship than to remain loyal to a lost cause.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article66903632.html#storylink=cpy

A Philosopher’s Back To School Advice

Advice for making the most out of school

Fresno Bee, August 21, 2015

  • Back-to-school is a time to reflect on education
  • Philosophical advice to students emphasizes curiosity, courage and compassion
  • Education requires effort, virtue and a passion for wisdom and justice


To my sons and my students, as we head off to school, here’s a philosopher’s perspective on education.

No one can learn on your behalf. Learning is an activity. It requires effort. You must actively seek the light.

Intelligence, virtue, and happiness are not genetic. No one is born smart, kind, or happy. Everyone has the potential to improve – or to fail. But improvement is up to you. Be systematic in your studies. Cultivate a disciplined work ethic. And nurture your passion for learning.

Develop curiosity, courage, and compassion. Curiosity opens the door to new ideas. Courage follows those ideas. Compassion allows you to understand why others choose differently.

Education is supposed to be difficult. It is easy to fill your cup with trivial knowledge. But opening your mind to the ocean of wisdom is a lifelong task.

Listen carefully and question everything, including your need for certainty. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Test dogma and inquire into common sense. Distrust those who want blind obedience. Ignore those who offer cheap grace and easy enlightenment.

Challenge authority; but remember that rebellion and doubt are tools, not destinations. Cynics are unhappy and friendless. Healthy skepticism is modest. It must be balanced with a sustained commitment to what is true and good.

Find mentors – teachers, coaches, and friends – who inspire you. The best teachers and coaches encourage without indoctrinating. They increase vitality by arousing our thirst for excellence.

Teachers are not entertainers or playmates. They criticize and evaluate. It’s not easy to receive criticism. But criticism helps us improve. Learn from your failures and work harder next time.

Be proud of your accomplishments. But don’t rest on your laurels. Celebrate what you’ve achieved today. Tomorrow there will be new challenges.

Cheer for other people’s success. Friendly competition invigorates. It makes everyone better.

Choose your friends wisely. Find friends who are smarter and more virtuous than you are. Good friends energize and uplift. They support your best efforts and console you when you fail.

Bad friends undermine you and reinforce bad habits. Avoid them. But be gentle with bad people. Some are wicked. But most are misguided and unhappy. Be prudent about social relations. But never lose faith in humanity.

Avoid gossip, rudeness, and disrespect. Be careful and courteous when asserting your own opinions. Think before you speak. But always say what’s on your mind. Avoid know-it-alls; and don’t become one. Remember: no one – not even you – can possibly know it all.

There are no shortcuts for learning to live well. Cheats and liars occasionally succeed. But they cannot succeed forever, since they lack what they pretend to have.

There are no “do-overs” in life. Misdeeds can never be undone. Happiness depends on knowing that that you deserve to be happy. A clear conscience is a necessary condition for a happy life.

Of course you will make mistakes. We all do. Forgive others and forgive yourself. But hold yourself to a higher standard. You are, after all, in control of your own life.

You are not, however, in control other people’s behavior. Help when called upon. But allow others to live as they see fit.

You will be homesick at times. Nothing good lasts forever. You will eventually say good-bye to everyone you love. Grief is a part of life. It is relieved by doing good works, making new friends, and rebuilding what is lost.

Find a cause worthy of your loyalty and stick with. A meaningful life is thick with loyalties and commitments.

Fight against injustice. But avoid rage, which burns without building. Justice also requires kindness, patience, and a creative imagination.

Educational institutions can alienate and frustrate. Bureaucratic authority is often ridiculous. But you are a person, not a number. Don’t become a cog. Demand respect and give it to others.

Life is more important than school. Don’t neglect your health. Exercise and eat well. Make time for love, leisure, and laughter. Create spaces of solitude and seek out spiritual experience.

And remember that education is a privilege. Some people don’t have the chance to go to school. Show gratitude for this opportunity by filling your cup, opening your mind, and creating a good life. And share what you’ve learned with others who are seeking the light.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article31837581.html#storylink=cpy