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.