Yet what are we to do when loyalty to a group runs counter to the long-term interests of the group? For example, there were engineers who warned their superiors of the possibility of “O” ring failure and of the dangers of cold weather leading up to the disastrous launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. However, these warnings were not passed up the chain of command, no doubt because of a culture of letting things slip and of accepting a little risk in the interest of moving the program along. There were those who did not want to make waves, to dwell on problems, or to blow the whistle, because to do so would have made them look like disloyal gadflies if they had halted the program every time there was a potential problem, no matter how minor. That is to say, the Program (with capital P) took precedence over the problems.
In the context of NASA, when truth and loyalty come into conflict, truth quite clearly trumps loyalty. In other situations it isn’t so easy to decide. Two of our three children play soccer, and it’s amazing to note how often the parents on our team feel the referee makes bad calls against our team compared to how often he makes bad calls in favor of our team. Sometimes when other parents on our team have yelled out and complained to the referee (“hey, that ball went out on the other team, not on ours!!!”), I’ve noticed that the ball really did go out on our team and I’ve occasionally tried to correct the parents, assuring them the referee in fact made the right call. That’s not a good way to stay on good terms with the other parents of our team! You’re just not supposed to be contrary; you’re supposed to be loyal to the team.
The tendency for us to see and believe what lines up with with what the other members of our in-group see and believe, and the tendency for those members to see and believe what lines up with their interests is called motivated reasoning. See this link for a fascinating study on Ivy league students who watched a film of a football game involving their team and another team, showing how even the brightest of students could not see what members of the other team saw when watching the same game. Our ability to discern the truth is clouded by our loyalty to the groups to which we belong.
I’ve realized it’s futile to continue being contrary when I discern that the soccer parents on our team aren’t being objective, because the stakes are low. That is to say, the value of loyalty trumps truth in this case; I’m not going to get in the face of the other parents and shout, “Can’t you see you’re operating under a cognitive bias called motivated reasoning?!” But neither will I join them in calling out to the referee that his call was mistaken.
In other situations, loyalty trumps all other values, even truth. If I were living in Nazi Germany and my best friend were a Jew and the the Gestapo were hunting him down, I would not have a problem lying about his whereabouts in order to protect him.
What about religion and politics? If we come to suspect that the fellow members of our religious or political in-group are making pronouncements that don’t line up with reality, saying for example that scientists (referees) are making bad calls on evolution or global warming, and we come to realize that in fact the perspectives of these scientists are valid, then do we remain loyal to our in-group and join in the calls against the scientists, or do we silently agree with the scientists, or do we outright break ranks with our in-group and speak out in favor of (what we believe to be) the truth? In short, do we (1) remain fully loyal to our group, (2) withdraw in silence, or (3) speak up for the truth? Of course, the in-group would prefer (1), but if we can’t make ourselves believe what they do, then they would prefer we opt for (2) over (3), since our silence would minimize the damage to their cause.
This works in both directions. Jesus did not call for his followers to zip it up even if what they believed was in conflict with that of their family members. In fact, for him, the truth of the gospel trumps family loyalty:
Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
To sum up, loyalty can indeed be a high virtue, particularly when it comes to protecting family and friends from harm. But loyalty can also sometimes prevent us from seeing the truth, a truth than runs counter to the prevailing opinions of our in-group. Loyalty is only a conditional virtue and can be a powerful force that prevents us from taking an unpopular stand against the misguided religious or political views of our family or friends.
For those who hesitate to go against the grain to uphold the truth for fear they’ll be branded as disloyal to their in-groups, I fully understand your plight; I once was (and still am, in some ways) where you are. Yet there comes a point where silence becomes a form of complicity to that which is not true, and the internal battle begins. Should I speak up? When do I speak up? It’s going to kill me! I can’t keep this pent up within me forever, and I can’t pretend to believe what I don't believe, but neither can I bear the thought of being disloyal! Everyone who begins to question the truth of what their in-group stands for must struggle with these gut-wrenching dilemmas.
As many of you may know, over a decade ago I come out publicly against the views of my family, church, and mission board, abandoning the faith I had embraced since my earliest years. I could have played the silent soccer dad, disagreeing in my heart with the calls of my former coreligionists. But my former coreligionists continued to make their complaints, even pronouncing that those who didn’t agree with their calls were doomed to eternal damnation. As a soccer dad, I don’t mind remaining silent even when other parents on my team are making their bogus complaints, because their complaints don’t really matter; the referee’s calls will stand in the end. And besides, these soccer parents don’t think I’m going to hell if I don’t join in with them in challenging the referee, and they’re not going to stack the school boards with those who challenge the referee, nor are they going to press their mistaken views in society outside the soccer field. If only the stakes surrounding the disputes over religion, evolution, and global warming were so inconsequential! Alas, they are not; thus, the need to speak out. Whoever remains silent cedes the outcome to the other side.
May we always be loyal to physically protect and provide for those in our inner circles, but may we also be faithful to the truth, and may be have the wisdom to discern what to do when truth and loyalty come into conflict. I can only hope that those who unconditionally value loyalty above truth will not work for NASA or any other enterprise that requires integrity and the ability to be corrected under the weight of the facts. It certainly matters how we respond to good evidence that counters our interests and the views of our in-groups.