Eric Felten

Eric Felten

Characters of loyalty and betrayal are at the core of great stories that move us: Huck Finn, Brutus, and Judas. Many consider loyalty as essential to every relationship of our lives. It provides the bonds of love, family, and friendship. Loyalty can also be burdened with complications and conflicts. It forces us to choose who and what counts in our lives – from siding with one friend over another to deciding whether or not to stray in a marriage. It also compels us to face conflicting claims of fidelity to country, employers, and even ourselves. Diane and her guest explore the rewards and challenges of loyalty.


  • Eric Felten Writes the culture column, "Postmodern Times" for "The Wall Street Journal."

Author Extra: Eric Felten Answers Questions

Mr. Felten stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.####

Q: Doyle Brunson, the famous poker player, makes deals worth enormous amounts of money with nothing more than a handshake to cement the deal. If a man isn’t willing to shake his hand and forego a signed agreement, I believe Doyle will even refuse to do business with him. What happened to that type of trust that we believe a man’s word and honor less than we trust the binding words of a piece of paper, which most of us don’t read or understand anyway?
– From Brian via email in San Antonio, TX

A: Contracts are marvels of social organization, but they are a very expensive way to make commitments to each other. There’s the lawyering up front and then the litigation over disputes on the back end. Brian is absolutely right that trust is simpler and more efficient. And that’s where loyalty – the virtue of being trustworthy – comes in. If you can establish your loyal bona fides people will be willing to do business with you on the basis of your handshake. It is one measure of how empowering loyalty can be.

Q: Two questions: Do we learn loyalty best by experiencing examples of loyal behavior or by being betrayed? Do you feel loyalty and other virtues are being taught in our education system? If not, should they be?
– From Rachel in D.C.

A: I think we learn loyalty at home if we’re lucky. But also we learn it from literature. Great dramas and tragedies often turn on questions of loyalty as characters try to solve terrible dilemmas that can come from conflicting loyalties. Reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar teaches us something, after all, of what happens when loyalty unravels.

Q: I want to disagree with your and your guest’s characterization of marriage. First, it is debatable whether or not marriage as “a simple statement of loyalty” (as your guest put it) works today, given the high rates of marital infidelity and divorce today. Moreover, marriage itself is a civil contracts just like premarital agreements! Both involve government involvement, lawyering and adjudication. Indeed, marriage evolved into a civil contract because people needed the state to protect their property, custody of children, and certain rights in marriage and in case it ended. While we may like to romanticize marriage as a simple commitment of two people to each other, the personal and social aspect of that kind of commitment do not require marriage whatsoever. – From John in Syracuse, NY

A: I think that loyalty is essential to marriage in a myriad of ways. Infidelity, of course, is profoundly destructive of the commitment spouses have to one another. But there are simpler questions of loyalty: Do you keep your spouse’s secrets, or do you indulge with your friends in pillow talk? Does the newlywed husband whose wife is at odds with his mother side with his new wife or hew to his mother? These are questions of loyalty, and they point to the centrality of loyal commitment in the success of any marriage.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Loyalty is often seen as a vintage virtue, something from a time when people took loyalty oaths, employees stayed with one company for their entire career and customers stuck with products.

  • 11:07:20

    MS. DIANE REHMWriter, Eric Felten argues that fidelity is not a forgotten relic in a new book, titled, "Loyalty." He explains why he believes that virtue is essential to a worthwhile life. Eric Felten joins me in the studio. He writes The Wall Street Journal's culture column, "Postmodern Times." We do invite your calls 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Eric.

  • 11:08:11

    MR. ERIC FELTENGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:08:12

    REHMThanks for being here. First of all, I'd like you to define loyalty for us.

  • 11:08:20

    FELTENWell, loyalty is the virtue of being reliable. It's the virtue of being trustworthy. In fact, the ancient Greeks, they didn't have a word that is exactly the same as loyalty. Their word was to be trustworthy and I think that's the reason that we recognize that loyalty is essential to every relationship we have in life that matters to us.

  • 11:08:47

    FELTENBecause if we have a relationship with somebody but we can't trust them, if we have a relationship with an institution and we can't trust it, if we try to have love with someone we cannot trust, it destroys the relationship. And so if we see loyalty as this ability to be reliable, to be trustworthy we recognize how essential it is to living a good life.

  • 11:09:16

    REHMBut there are people in whom we trust who turn out to be not trustworthy.

  • 11:09:28

    FELTENAbsolutely and this is what gives loyalty a bad name. How common is betrayal? Everything from on the small scale of, you know, imagine the girl who is in junior high who is bursting with secrets to tell her friends and then, all of a sudden, finds that those confidences are spread all over campus. We learn pretty early to be betrayed. And the surprising thing about betrayal is that even though we're betrayed time and again through our lives, it never loses its sting. It's not one of these things that, oh, we've gotten used to it so we don't care anymore.

  • 11:10:07

    REHMIt doesn't hurt anymore. Think about at the other end, the people who felt totally betrayed by Bernie Madoff.

  • 11:10:16

    FELTENAbsolutely. Here was somebody who portrayed himself as a friend to so many people. He was socially engaged with the very people whom he was ripping off. And then, what's interesting is when this scam finally did come unraveled, it's in part because as he told his sons what was really going on in the family business, one of the sons dropped the dime to the authorities.

  • 11:10:43

    FELTENAnd that raises other kinds of issues about loyalty, which is even if you're trying to be loyal there may be times when it's not right to be loyal anymore and we have a lot of trouble figuring out when those times are.

  • 11:10:57

    REHMWhich is why you call loyalty the vexing virtue?

  • 11:11:04

    FELTENYeah, that's the subtitle of the book, "The Vexing Virtue" and what makes loyalty so vexing is that on the one hand it's this essential virtue, crucial to every relationship that matters and on the other hand our loyalties are always coming into conflict with one another. We can be loyal to a spouse. We can be loyal to our children through family. We can be loyal to friends, loyal to community, loyal to the business we work for, loyal to God.

  • 11:11:33

    FELTENBut just try to be loyal to everyone all at the same time. Loyalty has this tragic flaw where it is that the many, many loyalties that we have are always coming into conflict with one another.

  • 11:11:46

    REHMI want to go back for a moment to Bernie Madoff's son because I think his -- the confession he received from his father and his subsequent action are illustrative of when loyalty no longer works for one's self. In other words, he knew that if he did not go to the authorities that he too might be considered held responsible.

  • 11:12:25

    FELTENYeah, and you would hope that when somebody does break this kind of bond of loyalty, turning in your father, that it's because there's an overwhelming sense that it's the right thing to do, not because it's the convenient thing to do finally in your own case. And a similar example would be David Kaczynski, who, years ago, reading the New York Times, he recognizes in the Unabomber's manifesto, the deranged pattern of his brother's correspondence.

  • 11:13:02

    FELTENAnd he really struggles with this because he feels loyal to his brother, but he knows that he can't let his brother go on killing and maiming people with package bombs. And so he calls the FBI after agonizing about it. What's interesting about it is that he first called the FBI anonymously and I think that there was, in that act, a sort of recognition that there was something unseemly about turning in your own brother.

  • 11:13:30

    REHMHe wanted to remain loyal to his brother at the same time he wanted to stop the maiming and killing.

  • 11:13:38

    FELTENAbsolutely. And yet we see that ultimately, he couldn't be loyal to his brother in that regard and do the right thing and be loyal to his community, to the other people in the country. And his brother, who was in a super-max prison when he gave interviews, goes on and on about how much his brother betrayed him and he's bitter about it.

  • 11:14:02

    REHMReally, really?

  • 11:14:03

    FELTENHe felt that as a betrayal.

  • 11:14:05

    REHMInteresting. And the book we're talking about is titled, "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue." Eric Felten is the author. He also writes The Wall Street Journal's culture column, "Postmodern Times." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Did something in your own life sort of move you to write this book at a moment in your life?

  • 11:14:48

    FELTENYou know, there may be an odd -- a very odd way in which I got thinking about the topic of loyalty. In a civilian context about the only time people talk about loyalty these days is in a business context, loyalty programs, frequent flier miles. And I remember trying to get my credit card rate reduced at some point because I'd gotten an offer from a different credit card company. I'd been with the same credit card company for years and years and years, just didn't want to be bothered with changing it. And I called and said, you know, I'm being offered this other rate. I'd just as soon stick with the company. Can you give me this rate?

  • 11:15:28

    FELTENAnd the nice person at the other end of the phone said, oh, we can't give you that rate from this office, but if you call the cancellation office and say you're going to cancel your card, then we can give you the good rate. In other words, if you're the loyal customer, they're going to take advantage of you.

  • 11:15:43


  • 11:15:43

    FELTENWhereas if you threaten to bolt, if you're disloyal, then they'll do everything they can to keep you around. And it made me realize that there isn't a whole lot of loyalty, certainly, in these kinds of business transactions and it got me thinking about the topic in a larger sense. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the many things that seem like moral landmines in our lives often are related to questions of loyalty. Who to be loyal to? Who can you count on? And then this problem of getting stuck in a jam where you have two loyalties that are inconsistent with one another, but that are both legitimate loyalties and how do you act in those situations?

  • 11:16:25

    REHMYou know, I was thinking about the rate of divorce in this country and how it hovers currently around 50 percent and how much of that divorce rate is created by one person or even both parties being disloyal to the union of marriage and how difficult that is for people in that situation.

  • 11:17:02

    FELTENAnd, you know, difficult not only for people in the situation, but everyone around.

  • 11:17:06

    REHMTheir children...

  • 11:17:07

    FELTENTheir children...

  • 11:17:07


  • 11:17:08

    FELTEN...their friends and there's often one of those questions of divided loyalties. You have friends who have been married and they get divorced. And how many of us have had that experience of being stuck, not being able to be loyal friends to both of the couple who have divided and having to choose one way or another and really feeling that in that choice, whoever is on the losing end of that choice is feeling betrayed, but that there was no way to navigate that.

  • 11:17:37

    FELTENI think we do have -- what's interesting are questions of marital fidelity. When pollsters ask people about sexual behaviors and whether people feel they're wrong or not, people have pretty, easygoing notions, by and large. But the one thing that still troubles people as being a really profound sexual wrong is married people having sex outside of their marriage, extra-marital sex, infidelity. And so what's this? At a time when sort of all the other bets are off, it is still a fundamental thing that we recognize that marriage can't survive with infidelity, with lack of loyalty.

  • 11:18:23

    REHMEric Felten of The Wall Street Journal. He writes their culture column, "Postmodern Times." His new book with a beautiful, simple, straightforward navy blue cover with gold lettering is titled, "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue" and we'll talk about the little dog on the cover when we come back.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMAnd we're back with Eric Felten. He has a new and really fascinating book on what he calls "The Vexing Virtue: Loyalty." (sic) That's the title of his book. Eric Felten writes the Wall Street Journal's culture column "Postmodern Times." On the cover, as I said earlier, of this beautifully bound book is a dog. Tell me why you -- the publishers chose the dog?

  • 11:20:43

    FELTENWhen we think of loyalty, who really exemplifies loyalty that we know of? And...

  • 11:20:50

    REHMWithout compromise.

  • 11:20:51

    FELTENWithout compromise. You know, when you're in trouble, your dog is going to be there without thinking, is it in my interest to come to your aid or not? The dog unthinkingly emotionally responds to be by your side. And that's really what we're looking for in friendship.

  • 11:21:13

    REHMBut does it truly exist?

  • 11:21:17

    FELTENYou know, I think it does, I think it does. And, you know, we do live in this time with Facebook and other kinds of social media where we have a proliferation of friends. We have so many friends because we've got, you know, a thousand people...

  • 11:21:30

    REHMFriends in quotation marks.

  • 11:21:32

    FELTENFriends in quotation marks. Because if you think about it, what is it to really be a friend? And I think it comes down to something like if you were accused of some heinous crime, who would show up in court and stand there, even if it might ding their reputation? Who would be there without asking any questions just because he was your friend and he was going to stand by you? And I think that that's -- it's a rare thing perhaps, but it does happen. And I think it's what we hope for in the people who are our friends, our lovers. And I think that often people find at the worst possible time that the people they thought were their friends are not their friends. But it's that kind of adversity that tests friendship. And dogs have a tendency to come through in that adversity.

  • 11:22:25

    REHMHere's an e-mail from Alice in Boonsboro, N.C. who says, "In high school, I befriended two girls. They disliked one another, but through the years they dealt with me visiting with one or the other. Though there may have been some jealousy, they were both unfailingly loyal. It's now 25 years later and not only are they now also friends with one another, they are both my closest dearest friends. At any time, any one of us could've betrayed or snubbed each other, but instead all of us remain loyal to our friendship."

  • 11:23:20

    FELTENAbsolutely. And it is what holds together friendship. And it holds together every other relationship we have as well. I mean, you think about parents and their children, family, married couples. We want relationships that are going to last that are -- we want friendships. We want love that's going to last.

  • 11:23:44

    REHMBut do we have to learn from our families exactly what loyalty is?

  • 11:23:52

    FELTENYou know, family, for ages, has been considered the place where loyalty is learned. And I do think that -- as Edmund Burke said, that it's in the little platoon that we learn to have the ability to connect with other people and do our part, this ability that is essential then to friendship, to love. And yet here's another place where loyalty becomes vexing, becomes problematic, which is -- you know, there have been across the country all of these tornadoes and terrible weather leaving so many people dead.

  • 11:24:24

    FELTENAnd think about what would happen in a situation where in some small town the first responders who had an obligation to come to the aid of the city and to everybody there was instead feeling the tug of their loyalty to family and went instead to help out their own family instead of the community. And that's what happened in a little town in Michigan, Beecher, in 1953. The whole fire department, when a terrible tornado hit, went looking for their own family. Only one fireman showed up.

  • 11:24:59


  • 11:25:00

    FELTENAnd he said later that it's because he had been with his wife and he knew she was okay. And he fought the fire through this town all by himself and yet he didn't condemn his fellow fire fighters 'cause he recognized the tug that they were feeling and said, you know, if I hadn't known my wife was okay, I probably would've done the same thing. But we can see how the loyalty we have to family, even though it underpins all of the other loyalties that are important in life, can also lead us to not fulfill our obligations in other parts of life, vexing virtue.

  • 11:25:34

    REHMWe are now dealing with what used to be employee loyalty, employer loyalty sort of falling apart. Whereas individuals used to go to work, for example, for GM for 35 years knowing they could count on retirement benefits, same with the telephone company that's now merged 20 times. Everything has changed so much in the work world that we no longer feel that strength of loyalty.

  • 11:26:22

    FELTENYeah, loyalty is a bond that ties us primarily to people and to institutions that last. And the problem of what's happened with business is that the business institutions really don't last in any significant way. You can think of a corporation as a person for certain kinds of legal -- it's sort of legal fiction that a corporation's a person. But unless a company is owned by an individual and you might have a loyal relationship with that individual, any company you work for, well, it may be sold. And the people who buy it, they don't know you from Adam. And unless there's a contractual obligation that they have to fulfill with regard to you, then they really don't have an obligation.

  • 11:27:16

    FELTENAnd so one of the things I argue in the book is -- especially given that our multiple loyalties, the more of them there are, the more likelihood they come into conflict and cause trouble for us. We shouldn't take on loyal obligations where they don't matter or where they're not appropriate. And I do think that in the business world -- if you're trying to be a friend or to have someone you love, a contract isn't really the best way to tie yourself to your friends and loved ones. But it is the right way to tie yourself in a business situation.

  • 11:27:51

    REHMNow, what does that say, Eric, from your perspective about premarital agreements, contractual arrangements being made prior to a loving commitment?

  • 11:28:10

    FELTENWell, I'm certainly not going to criticize anyone who feels they need to do that for whatever reason. Often it's because people feel they have a loyal obligation. For example, if you're getting married a second time and you have children from a first marriage and you are trying to protect the rights, if you will, of those people. And so we can see again where the loyalty you have to your children may come into conflict with trying to have a loyal bond with someone who is the new love of your life. And -- but I do think that there is a sort of recognition that if you have to have a contractual set up for your relationship that there's something -- the relationship isn't all that it could be.

  • 11:28:57

    REHMExactly. And that's what sort of makes me wonder whether it undermines the trust factor to feel that one has that need to protect whatever assets are in place that that -- I don't know -- sort of creeps into it.

  • 11:29:20

    FELTENThink about like a cell phone contract. The fine print goes on for, you know, for a phone book in and of itself.

  • 11:29:28


  • 11:29:29

    FELTENAnd yet the classic marriage agreement, which we think of as a sort of a contract, is very, very simple. Which is more important, the cellphone contract or the marriage agreement? And the reason marriage can work with such a simple contract is that they are simple statements of loyalty to one another, that you're going to cleave to one person and not put other relationships in front of that. And so that's how we can see that all of the lawyering and litigation that comes with contracts is reduced when we have people who are trust worthy whom we're dealing with.

  • 11:30:13

    REHMMoving from individuals to couples to country, what's happened to patriotism?

  • 11:30:22

    FELTENWell, you know, patriotism has gotten a bad name over the years and this is certainly because loyalty as a virtue, as with so many virtues can be abused and has been abused over time. We have seen lots of leaders who they want loyalty to them self, not loyalty to the country. And people who will use loyalty as a way of trying to enforce some kind of ideological or partisan agenda.

  • 11:30:53

    REHMHitler being a perfect example.

  • 11:30:57

    FELTENAbsolutely. I mean, what kind of virtue is loyalty if Hitler can make use of it? And indeed the SS, their motto was "Loyalty is my honor." They had it on their belt buckles. And Himmler, at one point, defined what it was to be a loyal SS man, what he thought loyalty entailed. And what he thought loyalty entailed was a willingness to commit acts for the fuehrer that others would find immoral or unpleasant. And so we can see how loyalty, even though it's at the heart of every important relationship, can also enable great crimes. And that's why we have to take seriously figuring out how to be loyal, when to be loyal and when not to be loyal.

  • 11:31:45

    REHMAnd, of course, at the Nuremburg trials the defendant said that they were simply following the fuehrer's orders so that that loyalty extended down the chain to that higher bureaucracy.

  • 11:32:06

    FELTENAbsolutely. And, you know, not in as horrible a situation but another problematic situation, the Watergate conspirators. They too fell back on saying, we were just being loyal to the president. And this is a big problem with loyalty. And yet what happens if we go from that to saying, well then we need to abandon loyalty. Then we abandon love, we abandon friendship and we abandon the ties of community and country that make country possible. You know, especially in a liberal democracy we have to be able to rely on one another. We have to be able to trust that our fellows are with us in the big enterprise. And I think that that is solidified by a kind of love of country that is like love of family.

  • 11:33:02

    REHMEric Felten. His new book is titled "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers. Let's open the phones first to Atlanta, Georgia. Good morning, Nancy, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:27

    NANCYGood morning. My point was that children, as you mentioned before, as a product of divorce are expected at such an early age to define their loyalty among -- between the two parents and it shifts from moment to moment. And especially in a child's world where the sphere is so narrow and it shapes a child. As a product of a divorce, parents -- myself -- the parents themselves are incapable of, most of the time, dealing with their own feelings much less the responsibility of helping a child shape their feelings in this regard. And I think so many children are growing up shaping their loyalties and their definition of loyalty at such an early age, with little to no guidance.

  • 11:34:23

    FELTENNancy has hit on something that is so fundamental and so difficult for children in particular. You know, childhood, when you're trying to learn to trust and to be put in a situation where you have to choose your loyalties at such an early age, is really a devastating and difficult thing. We often think of how painful it is to feel betrayed, but it's also extremely painful to feel that you're a betrayer. And people who are caught between demands of loyalties that they can't fulfill both of them between two parents who are at odds with one another, they feel like they're constantly betraying one or the other. And it really can be devastating.

  • 11:35:10

    FELTENGraham Green the great English novelist, when he was a teenager he found himself in a conflict of loyalties and it led him to try to kill himself half a dozen times. Happily he was inept about the ways he went about it but he did things like trying to guzzle photo-fixing chemicals from his mother's darkroom. And he once took a whole bottle of aspirin and went swimming in a deserted pool.

  • 11:35:34

    REHMAnd why did he do all this?

  • 11:35:36

    FELTENAnd he did this because the school that he went to, his father was the Headmaster. His older brother was the Head boy of the school, but, of course, Graham Green was living with the other boys of the school. And if one of his friends broke a rule, did something wrong, well, he felt he was obliged to go tell his father. And yet, if he didn't tell his father, he was betraying his father's trust. But if he ratted on his friend, he was betraying the friend. And he would later say that he felt like he was a quisling son, that he was a traitor any way he went. And that this crushing sense of being a betrayer led him to repeated attempts at suicide, which I think is some measure of how painful it is for people to be caught in these crushing conflicts of loyalty.

  • 11:36:25

    REHMYou talk about the great tragedy of Antigone.

  • 11:36:29

    FELTENAbsolutely. There you have someone who her brother has been a traitor to the city of Thebes. And the king of Thebes says, well, he's going to -- the brother's going to have to rot out in the field. This is going to be our way that we show people what happens when somebody's a traitor. And Antigone, she doesn't say, oh no, he wasn't a traitor. She recognizes he was but she has the obligation of a sister to her brother to go and give him a proper burial. And she ends up condemned herself because she's willing to do it. And -- but it is this great conflict of obligations between the obligation you have to the state and the obligation you have to your family.

  • 11:37:12

    REHMThe book we're talking about is titled "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue." The author Eric Felten writes the Wall Street Journal's culture column "Postmodern Times." When we come back, more of your calls, your e-mail. Victoria is on the line from Indianapolis, Pete in Ashburn, Va. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMWelcome back. We're talking about loyalty, that's the title of Eric Felton's new book. He subtitles it, "The Vexing Virtue," because, as we all well know, there can be conflicting pulls regarding loyalty. Here's an e-mail from Patricia in Arlington, Va., who says, "I hope you'll discuss the misguided loyalty of police officers to each other, even in the face of criminal or other abhorrent activity of a colleague." And, of course, it's not just police officers. You're talking about politicians, you're talking about members of the military.

  • 11:41:00

    FELTENAbsolutely. We think of that blue line and not being able -- not being willing to rat on a colleague, whether it's police or also in the military. And there're similar things, which is you're in a situation where you need to be able to know somebody's got your back if you're out in the field, whether it's a policeman or as a soldier. You know, the military has done, for a hundred years, an amazing amount of psychological work trying to find out what makes a unit effective. And an effective fighting force is almost always because of the loyalties that the men have one to the other. It's not ideological. It's not a great patriotic zeal. These things play in but they don't come close to the power that comes from loyal comradeship.

  • 11:41:50

    FELTENAnd, yet, the -- even though the army goes to great lengths to promote that as a way of getting unit cohesion and effective fighting force. And we see that as a tremendously noble thing, the soldier who goes out under fire and brings back his fallen comrade. The army also recognizes that more unit cohesion, the more loyalty that men have to one another, the less likely they are to turn one another in if somebody commits a war crime or does something else wrong. And, in fact, we see right now there's a court martial going on over this army striker team in Afghanistan where some rogue sergeant led his team into killing civilians for sport and taking pictures of it. Horrible, horrible thing.

  • 11:42:36

    FELTENAnd what's interesting about this, though, is that it was not the long-term members of the unit who finally came to their senses and called authorities about what was going on. Instead, it was a replacement to the unit. Someone who didn't have long-standing loyalties, who finally called the authorities and let them know what was going on.

  • 11:42:57

    REHMHe was on the outside.

  • 11:42:59

    FELTENHe was an outsider. And so we see how loyalty, even though it's essential, the army couldn't function without it. And, even though it's noble, can be perverted and twisted and taken to a horrible extreme in the other direction.

  • 11:43:10

    REHMTo Victoria, who is in Indianapolis, good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:43:18

    VICTORIAGood morning. I have recently come to a situation that I have to go through a personal journey to redefine loyalty. And I'm finding that I'm very cautious and not knowing how to trust again. I was in a marriage for 25 years with an abusive husband and this husband was very well recognized in the community and in the church. And then, when I finally realized that the abuse was not my fault, I went to the church for help. But that was -- his backs were covered by the church. And it was a lifetime of involvement with the church. So there were two prominent forces of love in my life that I felt suddenly abandoned by and that -- not only abandoned, but that I was the one in the wrong.

  • 11:44:16

    VICTORIAAnd I am struggling with trying to learn what loyalty -- what true healthy loyalty is, as well as teach that to my five children.

  • 11:44:29

    FELTENYou know, Victoria brings up something that can be incredibly painful for people. One, it's the sense of -- her sense of betrayal when she went to people she trusted for help and found that she didn't get it. But also, there's a -- there's a sense of one of the ways in which loyalty is often abused is people who, themselves, are not behaving in a loyal fashion, use the demand of loyalty to try to silence others about the acts they're committing.

  • 11:45:01

    FELTENAnd so, you know, often people who are abusive people will say, well, you need to be loyal to me. And, in fact, the way you show your loyalty to me is to allow me to abuse you because if you were to leave, then that would make you the disloyal person. And so, again, we see, even though we want loyalty because it does underpin healthy relationships, we see how loyalty can be twisted and can be used to make for very unhealthy relationships.

  • 11:45:31

    REHMGood luck to you, Victoria, and now to Ashburn, Va. Good morning, Pete. Pete, are you there?

  • 11:45:42

    PETEYes. Hello.

  • 11:45:43

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 11:45:45

    PETEOkay. I think loyalty really is the fabric of society. And I'm concerned that we really seem to have gotten away from the teaching of loyalty and ethics to our kids. You know, it used -- there's no more discussion in school. They don't do current events. They don't discuss ethics. And, even at the secondary and in college, there's not much that's taught about -- and there's not much discussion, open discussion, about ethics and loyalty. So we sort of are left with having the family as the only place to teach loyalty. And I think that's a shift, a societal shift, over the last generations. So that's my -- that's my comment.

  • 11:46:30

    PETEAlso, on the unit cohesion in the military, there's a great discussion in Sebastian -- Sebastian Junger's book, "War," which was published about a year ago, year and a half ago, about the whole, you know, how the military has researched and studied unit cohesion and how to come up with the correct size of group and that dynamics.

  • 11:46:55

    FELTENYou know, I do think that Pete is right, which is we need to take loyalty more seriously. And that means making it more than just a kind of a catch phrase and, perhaps, rescuing it from the frequent flyer programs, which have become the main place where we hear the word, loyalty. And, instead, think about what is it to be loyal? What is it to be loyal in our families? What is to be a loyal friend? What is it to be a loyal member of our communities? And what does that bring with it?

  • 11:47:31

    FELTENAnd I think part of dealing with that is figuring out how to react when these loyalties aren't all possible at the same time and recognize that we may be stuck in terrible difficulties because of it. But if we haven't thought about these issues beforehand, we may not be empowered to deal with those conflicts when they happen.

  • 11:47:52

    REHMAnd, of course, Pete is also talking about what's taught in schools, what's no longer taught in classrooms.

  • 11:48:03

    FELTENYeah, and, you know, I do think that there is a sense often when we think always about what our own rights are, that we aren't always thinking about what our obligations given our ties to one another are. And I think there's a lot of room for a healthy discussion of that.

  • 11:48:22

    REHMPete, thanks for calling. And let's go to Martinsburg, W. Va. Good morning, Ross.

  • 11:48:30

    ROSSGood morning, Diane and Eric.

  • 11:48:33

    FELTENRoss, how you doing?

  • 11:48:36

    ROSSI'm doing great, sir, thank you very much for your program. I'm really enjoying this and it's a critical subject I think we need to all think very deeply about. The main reason I called is that I spent over 20 years as a senior level manufacturing engineer and I have a couple of examples to pass on that I believe exemplifies why loyalty from the top down is critical in the health of companies and the health of our economy and our nation, as a whole.

  • 11:49:13

    ROSSOne particular company that I worked for was headed up by an individual who used to express very frequently his happiness over the financial health of his employees. A couple things that he used to do is if a new employee would buy a new car and come in, he would go out and take a look at that car and congratulate the employee on his purchase. It wasn't unusual for a young person who became married, the owner of this company would stop by and tell this individual -- congratulate him for his marriage.

  • 11:50:01

    ROSSAnd he would make comments like, you know, you and your wife are going to need a place to live. Why don't you come up and see me? We'll go to our financial people. We'll see if we can set up a low-interest loan for you.

  • 11:50:19

    FELTENYou know, I think what we see there is a business in which you have the owner of the business involved with his employees.

  • 11:50:26


  • 11:50:27

    FELTENAnd there's a connection. It's not a connection with the company. It's a connection with the individual. You know, you think about Duke Ellington's orchestra. He had a baritone saxophone player with him, Harry Carney, who was with him from the '20s until Ellington died when he -- in the '70s. And Harry Carney ended up dying just a few months after Ellington died. And Whitney Balliett, the great jazz author, said that Harry Carney died of bereavement. But theirs was a relationship that wasn't the sort of employee/employer relationship.

  • 11:51:00

    REHMOf course not, yeah.

  • 11:51:02

    FELTENIt really friendship. And the question is, even if you do have that kind of bond with somebody you work for, there really a friendship there that, if it's no longer in the company's interest to have the employees working at this particular factory, is the person running the factory who's been so, you know, much a part of his workers' lives going to shut down the factory and outsource things or not.

  • 11:51:26

    REHMInteresting. Yeah, right. Thanks for calling, Ross. To Gary, who's in Southern Maryland. Good morning.

  • 11:51:35

    GARYYes, good morning. How are you?

  • 11:51:36

    REHMFine, thanks.

  • 11:51:37

    GARYGood. I'm not supposed to do that, I'm sorry.

  • 11:51:39

    REHMThat's all right.

  • 11:51:40

    GARYI wanted to tell you I've had two experiences as a career undercover police officer in New York and there was always great loyalty between the cops. And, at one point, the individual police officer that controlled our funds, I came to realize that he was dirty. But rather than turn him in -- I had such conflict. We were able to couch the situation in such a way he no longer could control the money.

  • 11:52:06

    GARYBut I never did turn the guy in. And after that career, I went to work with some of the Navy special warfare people. And, recently, had a relative that's just become a Navy SEAL and I saw loyalty working with the SEALs like you'd never seen before. It was just unreal. I think it was a class of 350 or 320, I'm not sure, individuals that started the BUD/S training and 60 graduated. And at the end of their graduation, they have swam the equivalent of from Cuba to Miami and ran the equivalent of Miami to New York City. And the loyalty is so thick. I have never seen anything like it.

  • 11:52:49

    FELTENAnd it's one reason why the SEALs are so effective. I mean, loyalty is empowering. You can go and swim the English Channel if you know that should you fail, that somebody's going to grab you and carry you.

  • 11:53:02

    REHMOf course, of course.

  • 11:53:03

    FELTENYou're able to be more audacious in the field as a soldier if you know you'll be dragged -- if you're wounded, you'll be dragged back to safety.

  • 11:53:09

    REHMEric Felten, his new book is titled, "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I thought it was fascinating you wrote about Isidor Straus and his wife.

  • 11:53:27

    FELTENYou know, in the movie, "Titanic," and in the much earlier movie, "A Night to Remember," there is this scene where we see the elderly wife and husband who the wife will not get into the lifeboat because her husband will not go because there are still women and children. And she says, I'm going to stick with you. We've been together our whole lives. Isidor Straus was the co-owner of Macy's department store. And this really riveted the nation when the story of this -- because the women who were in the lifeboat, when they got back to New York, they described this and it was told all across the country in newspapers big and small.

  • 11:54:08

    FELTENAnd I do think that that is a great measure of what loyalty can be and the kind of ennobling loyalty that moves us.

  • 11:54:18

    REHMThere's also the question of loyalty oaths, Eric, and you might just talk about that.

  • 11:54:27

    FELTENYou know, we often think that loyalty oaths got their start in the Cold War. But, actually, loyalty oaths go back, you know, a thousand years -- thousands of years. And, in America, George Washington was big on loyalty oaths. In his case, it was all about trying to get people who might be fence sitters in the revolution to publicly proclaim which side they were on. But, in terms of whether you can enforce loyalty by getting people to take an oath, and if you're worried about espionage, what could be more worthless because it's weak in the face of spy craft. Who's going to be the first person to line up and raise his hand and say, I'm loyal, except the spy who's trying to cover his position.

  • 11:55:10

    FELTENSo loyalty oaths, I think, can be helpful in the pledge of allegiance if it's something that is like telling your wife you love her on a regular basis. Just a way of sort of expressing the love you have for your country. But if you think that it's going to be the thing that keeps somebody from betraying his country, the betrayer is the person who's going to be the first one to be willing to take the oath with his fingers crossed behind his back.

  • 11:55:36

    REHMAnd here's a Tweet from B.R., who says, "I think we should all be loyal to our reason first and then all persons or institutions second."

  • 11:55:54

    FELTENWell, this is one of the great conflicts of loyalty, one of the big issues that philosophers have tried to deal with, which is loyalty is a kind of emotional response we have to things. And it can lead us to be at odds with truth. And, often, if we're loyal to a friend and some issue has come up, we may decide to stick with our friend and not care what the truth of the situation is. And that's a real manifestation of what loyalty can entail. And, I think, you know, think about the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." Everybody comes, not because they found out the truth of the matter of whether George Bailey was embezzling, right, but they heard George was in trouble.

  • 11:56:39

    FELTENThey didn't care what the truth was and they showed up for him. And I think that's the kind of loyalty that inspires us.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMEric Felten, his new book is titled, "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue." Eric Felten writes The Wall Street Journal's culture column, "Post Modern Times." Congratulations on your book.

  • 11:57:02

    FELTENThank you so much, Diane. It was a real pleasure.

  • 11:57:04

    REHMThank you. And I'll be off for the next couple of days, back on Tuesday. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:15

    ANNOUNCERThe Diane Rehm Show is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.

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