Royce 3: Truth and Loyalty

Three years ago, wandering through a church library, I discovered Josiah Royce and his interest in community. Royce coined the term “Beloved Community” which was important to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. He is an important, if often forgotten, American voice in making progress in both political and religious thought.

Josiah Royce was born in a small community in California, and his first work involved California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1875, and then did a year of postgraduate study in Germany reading Kant and other German philosophers. In 1876, he entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Royce received his doctorate in 1878, taught in California, and then went to Harvard as lecturer in philosophy. In 1885, he was appointed as an Assistant Professor, and in 1892 a Full Professor. He continued at Harvard until his death in 1916. Royce was sympathetic to Christian faith, and one of his major works, The Problem of Christianity, is an attempt to create a philosophical basis for modern faith. This week examines his most popular work, “Loyalty,” which was first published in 1908. [1]

Pragmatic Idealism

Royce was a a friend and colleague of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who encouraged him to seek a career in philosophy. Royce is often thought of as the last American idealist philosopher. In fact, Royce represents a merger of idealism and pragmatism, which resulted in his calling his mature philosophy both “Absolute Idealism” and “Absolute Pragmatism.”

For Royce, human knowledge arises from the pragmatic search for truth upon which we can resolve doubt in some area. Truth, in this view, is the view considered to be true at the end of a process of inquiry by the community devoted to such investigation. Truth is found when the community of inquirers of any particular inquiry has reached consenus. This constitutes the “Absolute Pragmatism” of Royce. It is absolute because the end of the inquiry occurs when all inquirers agree as to the solution of the problem.

One the other hand, Royce was impressed by the fact that truth discovered displays a remarkable coherence with reality itself, and so there must be some connection between human ideas and the external world. In his famous argument from error, Royce notices that even when our ideas are erroneous, we intend to find something we call “truth,” which indicates that the object of our search exists. This, in turn, indicates that truth must already exist in the world of ideas. This represents Royce’s “Absolute Idealism.” Royce believed that the universe is “constituted of these ideas, a kind of “noetic truth” that human beings seek and believe they will find at the end of a process. This is true in the area of religion, morals, and politics as much as in the area of science.

At this point it is worth asking the question, “Does reality itself give us some reason to believe that mind ‘goes all the way down?’” as a scientist would put it. In a qualified way, I think the answer is probably, “Yes.” I have several reasons for thinking that this might be true.

First, there is the mysterious nature of mathematics. Mathematics (at which I was never any good) has features that indicate that it has a noetic or mental reality. Most mathematicians, when they make mathematical discoveries, think that they have “found” something that was already there. This element of discovery seems to me a strong reason to believe in the noetic reality of mathematical truth.

Second, scientists are frequently amazed at the way their discoveries happen to explain relationships in the material world. New theoretical discoveries seem to ideally explain some relationship that exists between the constituent parts of the reality being investigated. Albert Einstein’s famous discovery of relativity theory expressed in the famous equation, E=MC2  is a case in point. As the existence of atomic energy indicates, energy does equal the mass of an object times the speed of light squared. The theory expressed in the equations of physics seems to express an existing, invisible, noetic relationship mirroring physical reality. There are many other examples. This intelligibility of the universe seems to “go all the way down” as it were, so that even at the subatomic level, where the distinction between matter and energy begins to disappear, the ability of science to uncover relationships that seem to have “always existed” is remarkable.

Third, and this is a feature of reality that quantum physics caused science to confront, our own minds appear to be part of the universe we human beings observe. My mind and I are not somehow “outside of the universe looking in” but a part of the flow of reality examining other parts of that flow. The universe must at least have some form of a “mental potential,” otherwise it is hard to explain the human mind’s ability to understand the flow of reality surrounding it in any way at all. As physicist and philosopher David Bohm put it, “The mind may have a structure similar to the universe.” [2]

Finally, and this is where we come to currently debated scientific matters, our universe is intelligible in some mysterious way because it is at least partially “made up of” information. Some physicists are of the view that reality is made up of information and the universe is something like a giant computer. In the words of Physicist John Wheeler, “the it is a bit.” [3]

One does not need to go as far as Wheeler and some current theorists to be of the view that intelligibility is fundamental to reality. The world as we know it is made up of matter, energy and intelligible relationships between them. This intelligibility seems to be an irreducible component of reality. Wherever one finds matter and energy, science  finds intelligible relationships (meaningful information) that illuminates some aspect of the reality constituted by that matter and energy

For these reasons, I think it is fair to propose that, at the end of the enterprise of human knowing, we will understand that, in some way, “mind” or “order” or “ideality” in the form of irreducible comprehensibility, is a fundamental aspect of our universe. In the words of physicist John Polkinghorne, we live in “a world of deep and beautiful order—a universe shot through with signs of mind.” [4]

Morality and Moral Theory

Royce is also of the view that there is an irreducible moral quality to reality. Royce examines this moral reality in his most read book,  Loyalty, where Royce sets out an ethical theory based on the fundamental virtue of loyalty. His theory has four basic components:

  1. The fundamental ethical imperative is “Be Loyal.”
  2. One cannot be loyal in the abstract, but must be loyal in specific, concrete chosen circumstances and causes.
  3. Each individual must choose for him or herself the specific causes to which they will remain loyal.
  4. Finally, in the end, each individual must be loyal to loyalty itself, an approach that will bring persons into an ever-expanding commitment to the virtue of loyalty. [5]

For Royce, loyalty is the willing devotion of an individual to a cause outside of themselves. [6] In other words, loyalty is essentially social and binds us to a community of other persons. If loyalty is a virtue of personal choice, it is inevitably a virtue of communal participation.

Loyalty and Individualism

This social aspect of loyalty, places Royce in opposition to all systems of virtue that celebrate and are founded on individual will and self-authentication. This puts Royce in immediate opposition to Nietzsche, who is the object of criticism in Loyalty. All purely individualistic ethical systems based on will are doomed to failure for a number of reasons. First power is always dependent upon good fortune and luck, and many who begin life in the search for power will end in failure. Secondly, one who seeks power will never be satisfied, for the desire for power is insatiable. Third, the one who seeks power puts him or herself at odds with the universe itself, which leads inevitably to a clash between the power seeker and reality itself. [7]

I might add that since we human beings are social by nature, the one who seeks a solely personal power in the end is doomed to isolation and a failure of true humanity. Think of a Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin all alone at the end with no friends, no allies, nothing. It is likely that this will be true of the next conqueror to visit human history. It is not just true of military conquerors, but also of those in business, law, religion, politics—in any human social endeavor. Since the time of Greek tragedy, wise people have  understood that Fate treats ill those who defy the Fates.

Loyalty on the other hand inevitably draws us out of our isolation into a community. Our loyalty to a cause inevitably involves joining with others who possess a similar loyalty. In addition, our loyalties draws us into contact with those who have different, and perhaps opposing loyalties. As we must confront these other loyalties, we are forced to adjust and negotiate our own loyalties to place them into a harmonious relationship with others. This inevitably involves the social skill of dialogue and discussion, of tolerance, of compromise, and of growth. These are virtues much needed today.

Only persons can exhibit loyalty, and so loyalty to be loyalty requires the free choice of each individual member of a cause. Because we are finite, we cannot possibly be loyal to all possible causes, we must follow those causes that come into our path and of which we are able to be a part. For example, I cannot be loyal citizen of France, but I can be a loyal citizen of the United States. I cannot be a loyal member of my neighbor’s family, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to each and every religion in the world, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to every company in the world, but I can be loyal to the one for which I work.

Limits of Loyalty and Loyalty to Loyalty

Here we come to the most frequent critique of Royce: There are a lot of bad causes to which people have in the past and will in the future give their loyalty. For example, members of organized crime organizations can be incredibly loyal to their group. Many members of the Nazi Party were loyal to the party even to death. Every teacher has seen youth cover for a cheating student out of a sense of loyalty to their classmates. The list of misplaced, negative, even evil loyalties goes on and on. The fact that we can have misguided loyalties is a strong argument against the primacy of loyalty as a virtue. [8]

There is a second phenomenon that we all observe in loyalists. Occasionally their loyalty is blind and unwise. For example, there is a certain kind of patriotism that is blind to the faults of the nation and willing to defend what is not defensible. Closer to home, there are parents who are loyal to their children, defending behavior that is not truly defensible. There are businessmen who exhibit loyal to their company or firm to the point that they cannot see or oppose unwise or immoral behavior. Blind or excessive loyalty is a constant threat to the true virtue of loyalty.

Interestingly, we can appreciate the value of this kind of misplaced or misguided loyalty even while denying its ultimate value. In response to these objections, Royce developed his notion of “loyalty to loyalty.” Loyalty to loyalty requires judgement. If one is to be loyal to loyalty, it is necessary to develop discrimination as to the kinds of causes to which one will be loyal and the limitations to any given loyalty. I should not be loyal to a political party that advocates killing innocent people. It can be difficult to determine the extent to which any given loyalty should be served. For example, I may be loyal to my nation but still called oppose a war that is unjust. I may support my employer but refuse to engage in illegal or immoral behavior. The virtue of loyalty must be exhibited with wisdom and discrimination.


Next week, I will finish with Royce with a blog on the way in which loyalty draws the loyal person into a series of constantly expanding and deepening loyalties and how the principle of dialogue functions in Royce to create a climate in which one can live peacefully and productively with those with different loyalties. There is no virtue more needed in our democracy than the virtue of recognizing and honoring other people and their loyalties, even when they are opposed to our own deepest convictions and loyalties. Only a hierarchy of loyalties can prevent my own loyalties from becoming idols or justifying in my mind fanatism with respect to my loyalties. This is a big topic which will be covered next week.

Copyright 2022, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]).

[2] David Bohm, “The Super Implicate Order” in The Essential David Bohm Lee Nichol ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 157.

[3] Archibald Wheeler, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” in Proc. 3rd Int. Symp. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, (Tokyo, Japan: 1989), pp.354-368. “It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2007), 8.

[5] Loyalty, at 86.

[6] Id, at 46.

[7] Id, at 44.

[8] In point of fact, while I appreciate Royce’s argument in Loyalty, I am personally persuaded that self-giving love (agape) and not loyalty is the fount of virtue. Love by its nature cannot tolerate injustice, unfairness, or violence against the other, and always whishes the best for the other. It seems to me that it is a much better foundation for ethical reflection than loyalty. This argument must await a future blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.