Obedience and Loyalty: Dogs and Cats


Hackiko the Loyal Dog

The story of Hackiko the Loyal Dog, who waited in the same place every day for 10 years to his master (who had died) to return, seems to embody the virtue of loyalty. But is this also a story about obedience? What is the intersection and/or overlap between loyalty and obedience?

We often think of dogs as both loyal and obedient.  Dogs (well trained of course) obey our commands and do what we ask.  (Cats, not so much!) They seem to want to please us, to protect us and show a certain kind of preference and partiality towards their owners that we could think of as loyalty.  There are many stories about dogs facing grave risks to save or protect their owners, and the story of Hachiko seems an extreme version of this.

Lets start with a definition of loyalty. In my book Warrior, Military ethics and Contemporary Warfare I argue that loyalty ‘involves privileging the moral claims of some people, groups or ideas over others on the grounds of relationship, membership or other particularity.’ (28) In addition, loyalty is not just simple habits of attachment, but involve obligations and duties. Obedience does seem important to ideas of loyalty in the military, but trust also seems bound up in it too, as we can see in discussions of moral injury that involve as sense of betrayal and breaking of trust as a violation of the virtue and expectation of loyalty.

Of course, loyalty is not that simple, as we often have conflicting loyalties. In the military context, one has obligations of loyalty to peers, to commanders/leaders, to the Constitution, to the institution of the military or the community of practice, to the Core Values or other normative structures of military professionalism, to friends and family, and to fellow citizens – to name only a few.  Given these complexities, and the desire to avoid what is termed as ‘blind obedience,’ we need to go into more depth to try and sort out the relationship between loyalty and obedience.

Can one be obedient without being loyal?  It seems that this is possible; there is a certain kind of obedience that comes from fear or self-interest. My students obey (mostly) the commands that I give in class and outlined in the course syllabus because they have to in order to be successful in the course. This is obedience in a transactional sense which may involve fear, self-interest or a judgement of the costs and benefits. Outside of the class, it is not clear that there is a relationship which would command preferential treatment or prioritizing my moral concerns above others. So we have obedience, but not necessarily loyalty.

Does it work the other way? Can one be loyal without being obedient? Can cats (as an example of non-obedient creatures) be loyal even though one might not think of them as obedient? Or selectively obedient at the very best? Can disobedience actually be seen as an expression of loyalty?

This is a tougher, less intuitive case to make. At first, it would seem that if I am loyal to my mother, then I would obey her. But on closer examination, I could argue I am disobeying her because she is giving a bad order (to harm my father, lets say only for the sake of argument!) or is asking me to do something that sacrifices shared moral commitments.  The order may be bad because its not possible to carry it out or because it violates the moral commitments of our relationship or even more likely, broader moral commitments of our family, community.  Here disobedience will involve making choices among competing loyalties and also using my own judgement and discretion about which ones take priority.  Is it possible that I have to be disobedient in order to be loyal?

Back to my cats. I would say that they are, in fact, loyal to me. From my perspective, they seem to exhibit partiality to me based upon a relationship (that I feed them and care for them more than likely.)  Do they have partiality to my moral claims ? That is a more complicated question, since they are cats and one might argue they are not capable of moral judgments.  But that brings us to an important distinction to consider. Loyalty is about relationship and the moral claims of the person or thing I am in relationship with. Obedience seems to be about actions and not about relationship per se. Obedience involves a command to DO something; loyalty seems more about being and valuing moral claims.

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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