Wednesday, January 21, 2009



Obligations dominate life. We spend our lives struggling to fulfill commitments—or avoiding them. The law imposes some obligations upon us. Culture, family and tradition impose others. We even make personal obligations to ourselves. In every case, obligations constrain our action. We must either satisfy them or suffer the consequences. Those consequences might be financial or even corporal. Or they might be ethical consequences that weigh on our own conscience without any effect on our bodies or property. Obligations tell us what we must do. They darken our lives as much as they offer opportunities to advance our lot. They darken our lives because they represent compulsory duties imposed by some higher authority. They brighten our lives because when we fulfill them, we rise in others’ esteem by demonstrating our loyalty. They also brighten our lives because by fulfilling obligations, we may at times serve something larger than ourselves.

Obligation and loyalty spring from a similar source. But obligation comes in many guises, and so does loyalty. There are private obligations, such as a promise to repay a loan to a bank. Similarly, there are public obligations, such as an elected official’s promise to uphold the Constitution. Finally, there are ethical obligations, such as a person’s own commitment to live a principled life. In the first two cases, there are verifiably superior powers at work: In the private case, the debtor acknowledges that he “owes” the bank money, placing the bank in a superior power position. In the public case, the elected official acknowledges that he is a mere “servant” who swears to uphold the larger principles embodied in a public document, namely, the Constitution. In both cases, the law punishes failure to adhere to obligations. The debtor must pay, while the elected official could face impeachment or prosecution for violating established constitutional rules. Only in the final case is there no “superior party” at work. When it comes to individual obligations to one’s own conscience, only the will can adhere to the obligation. There is no superior force to compel allegiance. Ethical conundrums have nothing to do with external forces, despite what the ABA thinks. (Cf. Immanuel Kant: “[Ethical rulemaking] is internal and cannot have an external legislator.” Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, III. They are individual obligations, and only individuals can enforce them. Today, I wish only to speak about “classic” external obligations involving superior and inferior parties. I will leave ethics for another day.

External obligations imply a power relationship. There is a strong party (the “obligor” or “master”) and a weaker party (the “obligee” or “servant”). Against this background, an “obligation” means: 1. a binding contract, promise or moral responsibility; 2. a duty imposed legally or socially; a thing that one is bound to do by contract, promise, moral responsibility, etc. or 3. the condition or fact of being indebted to another for a favor or services rendered.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). Several words in these definitions underscore the uneven power relationship in any obligation. “Duty,” “impose,” “bound,” “indebted” and “responsibility” all suggest that one party must do something or face consequences from a higher power. Only higher powers can “impose duties” on weaker ones, while “responsibility” implies that a weaker party must answer to a higher one. There is a conceptual complex at work here that effuses power, and for good reason: Obligation cannot exist without disparities in power. And it is no accident that these definitions use the words “bound” and “must.” Obligations are compulsory. There is no choice. One must either fulfill them or face the consequences. Put another way, either the weaker party serves his master or he will be punished.

Power drives obligations. For that reason, loyalty plays a significant role in most obligatory settings. At first glance, loyalty has a positive connotation. Colloquially, we admire “loyal” people because we think they will not betray us. Loyal people hold to their words. They are honorable. They do not “cheat.” The word is shorthand for “a good character.” After all, in common experience, a “loyal” person typically has many other good characteristics, too.

These superficial understandings may hold in a colloquial sense. But loyalty has many other, more technical shades involving power relations. The dictionary tells us that “loyal” means: “1. faithful to the constituted authority of one’s country; 2. faithful to those persons, ideals etc. that one is under obligation to defend, support or be true to.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). In this light, we see that “loyal” really means “dedicated to ‘established authority’ and ‘faithful to obligation.’” In other words, to be “loyal” means to respect one’s betters, whether they are good or bad. After all, “established governmental authority” does not always act nobly. Heinrich Himmler was loyal to an “established governmental authority” led by Adolf Hitler. Similarly, a lawyer under contract with a law firm would be “faithful to his obligation” to advance firm interests by derailing a government investigation intended to harm one of the firm’s clients. Thus, “loyal” people are not necessarily good. They merely fulfill their obligations. If an obligation is bad, then it is also bad to be loyal to it.

Loyalty identifies the strong and the weak. “Servants” are loyal to their “masters.” The “master” “imposes” the “duty,” and the “servant” is “faithful to the person” who “he is under obligation to defend.” The master owes nothing. He commands. The servant, on the other hand, must obey or face the consequences. If he is “disloyal,” he disobeys his master and will suffer. Yet there is no reciprocal obligation on the master’s part. The master can act any way he wants, so long as he pays the servant for his loyalty. The servant must act only as the master directs; and he may not act in a way that would be “unfaithful” to the master. This power complex may seem simplistic, but it is extremely prevalent in private life, all the way from petty employment to corporate management. Corporations, for instance, are “pseudo-masters” over every person who works under their name. Every corporate employee—whether a director, officer or wage-earner—theoretically must “serve” the corporation as “master.” Directors owe “fiduciary duties” to the corporation’s “best interests.” “Fiduciary duty” is legal jargon that means little more than “loyalty.” When a director acts, he must consider whether his action would serve his master or himself. If he serves himself, he is “disloyal” to his master and must suffer. If he serves his master, he fulfills his obligation. No matter what he does, a superior power constrains him. He is the “weak party” who owes loyalty to the “strong party.”

Power controls both public and private obligation. In both cases, weak parties owe loyalty to strong parties who control their actions. Yet there are cases in which loyalty does not indicate subservience or slavishness. Does the difference lie in the nature of the obligation at issue? I would venture that public obligations are somehow more enduring than private ones. For example, yesterday President Obama swore an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He entered into an obligation to support the public ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Those ideals are basically good. They are enduring. They stand for principles beyond private enrichment. Strictly viewed, President Obama is the “servant” and the Constitution is his “master.” He has a duty to protect the Constitution above all else. In that sense, his “loyalty” to his “public master” is a good thing. It does not make him a bootlicker to say he “serves” the Constitution. In fact, he should be praised for putting his “constitutional master’s” interests before his own. Viewed in these terms, it seems to me that “public obligations” have a more lasting resonance than private ones.

Private obligations do not have the same thematic appeal as public obligations. For example, there is nothing particularly memorable or praiseworthy about a phone company Vice President’s obligation “not to compete” with his former employer’s company for six months following his resignation. Conceptually, he has an “obligation” just like President Obama, but the subject matter is private, not public. Here, the “master” is a private corporation that has no goal other than private profit. It stands for no larger ideals. Like the Constitution, the company is a “superior power.” It demands loyalty from its “servants,” in this case the departing Vice President. Yet “loyalty” in these circumstances has a profoundly different character than it did in President Obama’s case. Here, “loyalty” requires the company Vice President to refrain from taking a job in his old line of work for six months so that the phone company’s profits will not suffer. The master benefits financially from the servant’s loyalty, while the servant gains nothing. Still, if he defies his master, he could face legal consequences. In a word, loyalty here is pedestrian, forgettable and petty. It concerns no one but master and servant. It may be necessary to protect private enterprise, and theoretically it may be identical to public loyalty. But I venture that it differs in character from public loyalty.

Loyalty and obligation interest me because they pervade our society, yet very few people understand how they function. In sum, I believe that loyalty is not necessarily a “good word” because it depends on the obligation to which a person is loyal. Generally, I believe that public obligations are thematically more appealing than private ones, but that does not mean that all private obligations are bad, or that all public obligations are good. Yet I think it is important to understand how obligation and loyalty operate on a conceptual level, because they are hallmarks of power. When I say that obligations dominate life, I necessarily say that we live in a world of disparate power. When we understand that, we can better understand our lot. And we can also see whether our masters are justified.

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