Loyalty and conflicts of interest

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said  “I’ll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.”  But too much loyalty may be bad for reasons that go beyond inefficiency, as indicated by President Trump’s call for then FRI director Comey to be loyal to him.

In Ethics for Adversaries,  Arthur Isak Applbaum describes how many of the adversary systems with which we live – law, politics, and others – seem to license wrongdoing that would not be countenanced if done in other settings.  As he notes, “[A]dversaries act for by acting against,” and this leads to a purported “division of moral labor” – with the expectation that some sort of equilibrium will arise therefrom.   But, he says, acts that ordinarily would be morally forbidden – such as deception – should not be considered permissible merely because they are performed in a political or professional role.

The phenomena of loyalty can be thought of somewhat in the same way as adversarial norms in that, although the source of much good, it too can interfere with fairness and honesty in thought and deed.

In a piece in a recent issue of Forbes. Rob Asgar makes the following important  points about loyalty:

– The “loyalty bind,” as some psychologists call it, keeps the members of an organization from being able to see tumors metastasizing in their midst. It’s what leads to scandals and cover-ups in churches, city halls, companies and ideological movements.

-The challenge is to move organizations away from the notion of loyalty to persons and toward the notion of loyalty toward first principles. These principles include transparency, integrity, accountability and a constant readiness to reform in whatever way necessary—no matter whose personal interests may be affected. This isn’t easy, because humans are tribal—we evolved to be in the society of other humans and to instinctively sacrifice our own safety in order to defend them against outside threats. The notion of defending shared principles came later, and it still hasn’t taken root fully.

– It’s something of a management cliché to suggest that good leaders inspire loyalty. But the reality is that it’s often the bad ones who focus on that. Good leaders inspire principled behavior, not loyalty or obedience.

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