When Principles meet Loyalty, who wins?

I was probably right there on the Berkeley campus when the package arrived. I’d finally resumed work on my bachelor’s degree, and I also had a university office job, so I spent much of my time there. Thankfully, the package didn’t come into my hands, so I wasn’t on the receiving end of the Unabomber’s eighth attack. A grad student named John Hauser was – the enclosed bomb blew up his arm, and he only survived because a previous Unabomber victim was nearby and used his necktie as a tourniquet.

The Unabomber’s campaign of terror lasted another ten years, killing three people and injuring 23 others. Eventually, he mailed out a massive “manifesto” explaining his worldview, insisting on its publication. After much discussion with the FBI, a major newspaper agreed to publish it, in the hope that someone would recognize his writing style.

And someone did.

David Kaczynski had a trove of letters his brother had written over the years, and going back through them, he discovered phrases very much like those in the manifesto. With his wife’s encouragement, he reported his suspicions to the FBI. Ted Kaczynski was captured, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of David Kaczynski. What was it like to make that phone call? To turn in his own brother? But he had to act, or more people would surely die.

And I’ve always been intrigued, too, by the fact that we find his story so remarkable. Why was it surprising? Because we expect personal loyalty to outrank – to “trump” – principles. Or rather, sure, loyalty is a principle too, but it’s more of an honorary principle, a natural emotional response that’s been elevated to stand alongside the cooler, more rational principles.

Loyalty is a motivation to act in favor of those close to us, or similar to us, or acting on our behalf. Loyalty is our natural response when someone threatens someone we care about; I’ve written about this in the past.

Principles are fundamental beliefs about how things are, or how they’re supposed to be. They’re abstract, systematic, and expected to apply to everyone equally.

When we break laws, the justification is supposed to be through appeal to a higher principle. Why did that guy smash the windows on that car? Because it’s 100° outside and a dog (or a baby!) was trapped in there, of course. The principle of defending life is clearly higher than laws about not destroying other people’s property.

Principles have emotional appeal of their own – we call it righteousness, and anger at the violation of principles is righteous indignation. Principles have fueled many important causes – civil rights, national independence, and so forth. Yet sometimes a group claims exceptions, based on emotional appeals to loyalty to those they care about – like how some of the Founding Fathers insisted on the “right” to own slaves in a land based on liberty and justice for all, on the grounds that this way of life had been their family’s heritage. Under the rule of law, though, principles come first, and these exceptions should be few and far between.

And that brings me to Liz Cheney. It’s obviously infuriating for rank-and-file Republicans that someone prominently affiliated with their party is standing firm in defense of abstract principles, when the rest of the them are in the thrall of someone who puts loyalty to himself above any principle, someone whose own principles (if any) are confoundingly hard to detect.

And yet there are underlying principles that his followers attribute to Trump, very primal ones. The kind you’d see on a playground – “No! No! Let me go!” “That’s mine, you can’t have it!” “I was here first!” “Finders, keepers!” These principles generally boil down to two things: The need to feel that we’re in control of our own destiny, and the need to retain what we imagine is ours.

It’s not surprising, then, that the vast majority of our laws are designed to regulate these very things – what we can do, and what we can have.

Our lawmakers will continue to debate these issues. Circumstances change, and there are many perspectives. The Earth is more of a zero-sum game than it used to be, in terms of resources, and the transition toward a future with greater security for all remains a rocky one. It feels, though, as if one entire faction of our lawmakers is refusing to come to the table unless we make an exception for their leader – unless Trump can do whatever he wants and have whatever he wants.

The thing is, there are actual conservative principles – stability, security, order. And we need these voices in our discussions. Today’s Republicans, though, seem mostly focused on tribalism, as compared with Democrats’ greater emphasis on inclusion and equity. And tribalism versus inclusion pretty much captures the loyalty / principles distinction – it’s about meeting the needs of people like ourselves rather than coming up with systems that serve everyone.

I’m not sure what the Republican path forward can be, at this point. Surely there is someone out there with conservative credentials and personal integrity who is more charismatic than Donald Trump?

It’s probably not Liz Cheney. But that’s okay. As Frank Bruni wrote today, Liz Cheney may have resoundingly lost the primary election to retain her seat in Congress, but history will smile on her.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to When Principles meet Loyalty, who wins?

  1. Graeme Adamson says:

    You have such excellent insights.

  2. That’s a kind thing to say! Thank you!

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