Before spelling out why I think Royce’s loyalty-centred ethics is best understood as part of his response to the problem of evil, let me indicate what I take to be other clues that Royce was thinking about loyalty in conjunction with the struggle against evil for many years prior to the publication of The Philosophy of Loyalty in 1908. The structure of The Religious Aspect of Philosophy is such that the practical precede the religious. In Book I, Royce discusses “the moral insight,” which can be (too) briefly summarized as the insight that ultimately all of life is related, is one, is a part of the Absolute.
But, Royce warned — in words that James stubbornly refused to hear — “The moral insight discovers harmony not as already implied in the nature of these blind, conflicting wills, but as an ideal to be attained by hard work” (RAP 162, my emphasis). Then, at the end of Book II (“The Search for a Religious Truth”) when Royce reminds his readers of the practical consequences of his discussion, he invokes loyalty as the best description of that life of work. In words that preface his ethical treatise published over two decades later, in 1885 Royce writes:
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This chief present work of ours, this extension of the moral insight, is best furthered by devotion to our individual vocations, coupled with strict loyalty to the relations upon which society is founded. The work thus set before us demands the sacrifice of many ideal emotional experiences to the service of the Highest. Our comfort however in it all must be that the Highest is there above us, forget it as we may… (RAP 473).
Loyalty appears in the pages of The Spirit of Modern Philosophy several years later as Royce tries to steer between the Spinozistic view, whereby God is the laws of outer nature and Kant’s admonition that we can only postulate, but never fully take hold of, the divine. For Royce, we are one with the divine, “just insofar as we have vitality, courage, loyalty, wealth, strength, sanity, of will and of understanding. We know of him just so much as we are. And we are of him just so much as we are morally worth to be” (SMP, 142).
A few years later, in a lecture at the Brooklyn Institute entitled “The Moral World as the Revelation of God,” Royce writes with respect to our moral agency: “The question is not… as to your natural powers, as to your skill, your effectiveness, your might, your endowment. All these matters are enshrouded in mystery. But the real question is more about your loyalty. And this is something whose absolute worth you can know as well as God can know it.”
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