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.
Altruism ranges from a passive respect for the interests of others to an active indulgence of their interests to the detriment of one’s own. It ranges from the barely erogatory on the one hand to the supererogatory on the other. What can be said for it?
Proponents of the moral order have long sought to heighten the persuasiveness of moral precepts by appealing to reason. A primitive but familiar argument invoked a myth of divine decrees enforced by sanctions, which consisted usually of reward or punishment after death. The myth itself was not sustained by any appeal to reason whose cogency we are apt to certify, but, granted the myth, the argument by appeal to it was indeed a rational argument to the effect that moral behavior is in one’s own interest.
Another familiar argument from self-interest is that we are all better off if we all respect one another’s interests. The fallacy is familiar too: any one of us may be even better off by infringing on another’s interests, if the rest of society behaves properly. The weakening of the fabric occasioned by the one man’s deviation is unlikely to harm him appreciably in his lifetime. Police and punishment are our way of redressing the balance by bringing further self-interest to bear.
Might we say then that self-interest does offer a rational warrant for altruism once we have instituted police and punishment? No, for two reasons. One, the penal code demands only erogatory altruism, leaving the supererogatory untouched. Second, self-interest condones even some unaltruistic cheating at the erogatory level, when the cheat sees his way to eluding police and punishment.
The enlightened moralist thus recognizes that self-interest, however enlightened, affords no general rational basis for altruism. Altruists are simply persons who prize the welfare of others outright and irreducibly, just as everyone prizes [their] own.
Some moralists feel that this lack of a rational justification on the basis of self-interest is a threat to morality. I say that such a justification would have been unworthy anyway, smacking of the venal and the sordid. Let virtue be its own reward.
We must simply recognize that there are drives other than self-interest, and admirable ones. Ethologists represent some altruistic drives as innate in man and other animals, and they explain them by natural selection as ways of safeguarding the gene pool through the protection of kin. But [humanity's] altruism is not always as abundant as we could wish, nor are arguments from self-interest the way to increase it. The way rather is to play on whatever faint rudiments of fellow-feeling [we] may be capable of, fanning any little spark into a perceptible flame. Try the formative years for best results.
W.V. Quine on ‘Altruism’