How Blind Loyalty Upends Upright Conduct

August 29th, 2012
Jim Thomas

Brent Scowcroft, White House Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush, said “Loyalty ends where Integrity is jeopardized.” We all do well to take note.

Consider the case of Egil “Bud” Krogh, himself White House assistant counsel to President Nixon. In 1975, for his conduct in the Watergate Scandal, Krogh plead guilty to criminal charges and went to prison. Following release he spent years agonizing over his role in the biggest scandal in U.S. history. During his reflections, he sought to single out the impediments to integrity pervading the Nixon White House.

In 2007 he published a book entitled Integrity, Why Good People Make Wrong Choices. It contains his opinions of the culprits. Among others: “blind loyalty to the group, the group leader, or both.” He lays out his own view at the time that loyalty to the President overrode all other considerations—the law, rules and regulations, the civil rights of others. Blind loyalty, he admits, caused him to direct the break in of Daniel Ellsberg’s physician’s office. It was but one of many misdeeds in which he confesses to making ‘the wrong choice.’

Loyalty has its virtue. People feel numerous obligations: to family members, to one’s profession, employer, city, company, civic organization and so on. A dilemma arises when those loyalties conflict with loyalty to a higher interest. Then a choice becomes mandatory.

David Kaczynski, a forty-six year-old social worker in New York State, confronted such a dilemma. In reading public statements issued by the Unabomber, he recognized words and phrases as those of his brother, Ted Kacynski. After excruciating deliberations, he informed the FBI and the Unabomber was captured. Above the powerful loyalty of brotherhood, David planted himself on the side of a greater interest–public safety. Said he, “The thought that another person would die and I was in a position to stop that—I couldn’t live with that.”

An extreme case? absolutely. But, it offers a crystal-clear lesson on how to prevent loyalty from breaching one’s integrity, from demolishing one’s self-respect. In the presence of conflict, subordinate personal loyalties to the greater good.

[For more on loyalty and the Unabomber, See Michael J. Sandel, Justice; What’s the Right Thing to Do, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2009, pp 239-240.]

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