As the men and women of the 117th Congress of the United States of America gathered to certify Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president, a large group of rioters descended on Pennsylvania Avenue, passed police barriers and took to assault the United States Capitol. Five people died and the images of ruckus and uncontrolled violence shocked the world.
These rioters were not the first to engage in illegal and unethical behavior in support of outgoing President Donald Trump. Michael cohenTrump’s former lawyer and fixer is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for the man he said he “would take a bullet” for. He now recognizes that his “weakness was blind loyalty to Donald Trump.” His loyalty has led him to violate campaign finance laws and lie to Congress to cover up Trump’s “wrongdoing”, as he has described them.
Loyalty is often presented as a virtue. Defined as an inherent bias towards a group or person, expectations of loyal behavior include acting in the best interests of the group or person because it is the right thing to do.
Loyalty can make us better people, but it also has a dark side, as group of researchers, led by Angus Hildreth of Cornell University, found.
The dark side of loyalty
In their studies, Hildreth and her colleagues examined when loyalty stimulates ethical behavior and when it actually compromises people’s ethics. They first found that groups that pledged loyalty to each other cheated less than groups that did not engage. Promises of loyalty seem to increase ethical behavior.
However, other studies have found that fidelity could also have the opposite effect of increasing UNethical behavior. For this to happen, two conditions had to be met.
First, competition between groups should be high. If your group is competing against another strong team, you and your members risk engaging in unethical behavior to support your group. But competition alone is not enough. Second, the tipping point is a call to action the leader of your group regarding what their loyalty requires and how they should demonstrate it. When competition and a call to action are present, unethical behavior escalates among the most loyal.
Sadly, both of these conditions were present on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters gathered to hear him speak. Unable to accept that he had lost the election, Trump ordered his supporters to come to the United States Capitol to “stop the theft.” Some responded by forcibly entering the building, terrorizing its occupants, degrading and stealing property and inflicting violence.
When competition and a strong call to action awaken members of a loyal group, the desire to be fair, honest and peaceful is overcome. Well-anchored values are fading, replaced by blind loyalty and a thirst to win at all costs.
We become willing to cross our ethical red lines when we believe it is for the good of our group. Supporting our group and its leaders can make us feel like a saint, allowing us to justify even the most immoral actions.
Blind loyalty can lead to senseless violence, gang killings, and the kinds of cowardly political machinations we’ve seen too much in recent days. It can and has fueled the worst movements and developments in human history.
Loyalty can become the force of ultimate destruction when it collides and overwhelms more genuine virtues, such as honesty, fairness, and integrity. To avoid this fate, we must move away from loyalty to individuals, parties and groups and embrace loyalty to our core principles: responsibility, integrity and honesty. Instead of unconditional obedience to unethical acts, we need principled behavior, critical thinking and, if necessary, thoughtful objection.