9 years ago: Quine’s landlady

April 17, 2004, on this blog: Quine’s landlady

Here I turn to W.V. Quine’s delightful book Quiddities. This is Quine on the subject of “Altruism”:

Altruism is the main stem of morality and the primary concern of moral principles. The landlady says of her student lodgers that they are good boys, while knowing full well that they gamble, curse, drink, drive to endanger and consort with loose women. What does she mean? Just that they are reasonably altruistic.

Quine’s landlady is, I think, a better judge of goodness than most of the virtuecrats and professional moralists who have made a career out of fretting about other people’s immorality. She understands that vice, as we’ve come to define it, is no longer a true opposite of virtue.

The Bennetts, Borks and Bauers define virtue almost entirely as the avoidance of vice. And their conception of vice consists of a rather arbitrary list of no-nos. It is not possible, in their view, for the landlady’s lodgers to be “good boys” if they also “gamble, curse, drink, drive to endanger and consort with loose women.” For these moralists, good people are, by definition, those who do not do these things.

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan seems closer to the view of Quine’s landlady than to that of the virtuecrats.

  • MaryKaye

    One of those things is not like the others–how does one show altruism and at the same time “drive to endanger”? (Speaking as someone who has lost two friends to the results, and narrowly missed losing a parent and a sibling.)

  • Anne

    Altruism: The principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others every once in a while when you take a break from being obnoxious and endangering others.
    ?

    I know plenty of people who define virtue almost entirely as the avoidance of vice. I also know plenty of people who think they can do anything they want and still be Good as long as they occasionally tip the scale the other direction.
    Neither group has cornered the market on Goodness and both can be quite unpleasant to spend time with.
    and what difference does it make who looks more like the good Samaritan? If you want to see Goodness, look to Jesus instead.

  • Beroli

    and what difference does it make who looks more like the good Samaritan? If you want to see Goodness, look to Jesus instead.

    …Really? It is your belief that in the entire Bible, there is only one role model–to the point of believing that Jesus himself was wrong when he told a story using someone other than himself as a role model?

  • Anne

    Don’t be ridiculous.

  • Jamoche

    I wouldn’t trust someone who uses the term “consort with loose women” to define “drive to endanger” the way I would. More likely they’re the people who drive 10MPH below the speed limit on 2-lane roads and either refuse to pull over when there’s a passing lane or do but give you dirty looks for passing them.


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