What nobody mentioned — not the announcer, not the players, not the smiling parents — was that Wild, who graduated from the local high school and trained on nearby Mount Hood, didn’t win his double gold for Team USA. He won it for Russia, and photos of him with Vladimir Putin prove it.
Our town’s celebration of a Russian champion got me thinking about loyalty — which, as it turns out, is a highly complicated emotion. While we generally think of loyalty as a virtue, loyalty to Nazism or terrorism is, of course, anything but virtuous.
Loyalty, almost by definition, also sets us against one another; loyalty to my family means I’m less concerned about yours. Perhaps most troubling, our loyalties can easily put us at odds with ourselves. “Loyalty may be a single virtue,” philosopher Troy Jollimore writes in his book On Loyalty, “but because we have multiple loyalties, it tends to attach us to a plurality of values, some of which may conflict with others.”
So how do we resolve the internal and external conflicts that loyalty creates? University of Southern California psychology professor Jesse Graham suggests that loyalties surround us like concentric circles, and those circles pull us both outward and inward — outward because we believe we should care for as many people and things as possible, and inward because we believe we should care about our children more than, say, houseflies.
“Is it prejudice or is it good that we have more care at the center of our moral circle?” he asks. “We’re pulled in both directions.”
Graham, along with Northwestern University psychologist Adam Waytz, recently conducted an experiment in which participants were shown a series of concentric circles labeled with 16 types of loyalties. Graham and Waytz placed immediate family in the middle, and friends, acquaintances, nation, humans and mammals in progressively larger circles. (They labeled the outermost circle with the least loyalty-inspiring entity they could think of: space rocks.)
Graham and Waytz then gave participants a limited number of tokens, instructing them to distribute the tokens among the circles according to their loyalties. They found that all participants assigned more tokens to smaller circles and fewer tokens to larger circles. In other words, everyone’s loyalties weakened as the entities became more distant and abstract.
Participants who had expressed conservative political values tended to cluster their tokens more tightly, putting most of them in the smallest circles. Those with liberal political values tended to spread their loyalties thinner, placing at least a few tokens in more distant circles. When Graham and Waytz gave participants an unlimited number of tokens and the same instructions, the results were similar.
Graham and Waytz’s findings suggest that liberal-leaning people may have had less trouble resolving their conflicting loyalties to Vic Wild and Team USA. Since their loyalties tend to extend beyond their national borders to other countries, other species and even other planets, they probably didn’t find it too difficult to cheer for a neighbor who also happened to be a Russian champion.
Conservatives, on the other hand, probably struggled more. They wanted to be loyal to a neighbor, but a gold medalist representing another country, especially one at odds with the United States, didn’t fall within their personal circles of care.
Age and personal experience influence our responses, too. I was intellectually more than ready to root for Wild, but I was instinctively brought up short by the photo of Wild and the Russian president shaking hands. People too young to remember the Cold War likely saw the photo differently.
Regardless of politics, such conflicts are likely more complicated than they used to be. “In the U.S., at least, we no longer get the kind of moral education that decides these things for us,” Jollimore told me. We live in a world that’s more individualized and more interconnected than it was just a decade ago, and that, for good and ill, muddies our loyalties.
“We’re much more cosmopolitan than we used to be — much more likely to know someone from another place,” he says. “And when you’re faced with a person in the flesh, you can’t generalize. You can’t say, ‘Well, all Russians are bad.’ ”