A moral cat?
An alert reader, my friend and colleague Dr. Greg Mayer from The University of Wisconsin, Parkside, read Steven Pinker’s thoughts on the evolution of morality (posted below) and informed me that he saw the rudiments of morality in his cat Peyton (pictured above). I asked him why, and he responded with an answer so cogent that I thought it deserved posting. To wit:
My cat's morality
In his post on the material mind, Steve Pinker mentions the rudimentary moral sentiments-- "sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt". I’m pretty sure my cat, Peyton, has some of them. Gratitude and guilt– maybe; retribution– probably not; but sympathy and trust– absolutely.
The cat I had as a child used to catch small mammals in the yard, and then bring them back to the house. Many cats do this, and some interpret this as the cat sharing its prey with its (human) family, which might be gratitude. Peyton is an indoor cat, and so has no opportunity to share what she’s caught. But it might be that the sympathy and trust she shows to us can be seen as an expression of gratitude. Guilt I’m not sure about. She knows when we disapprove strongly of something she's done (as long as the disapproval is expressed immediately– you can't remonstrate with her over things that are over and done with), and she'll behave in a particular way (slink off), but what her mental state is like is hard to know.
But about sympathy and trust, I’m sure. She lets us do things with her (like playing Spidercat– this involves holding her upside down near the ceiling) that she would not tolerate from other creatures or people. She routinely exposes her belly and throat for scratching in a way that goes beyond mere pleasure seeking, because it makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure. And in various forms of play, she holds back from scratching and biting strongly. Scratching and biting are key elements of cat play– what makes them play, instead of fighting or predation, is the cat's withholding of its effort so as not to injure the playmate. It's easiest to demonstrate the existence of sympathy and trust by seeing what happens when they're removed. We have to put her in a travel case to take her to the vet. She resists going in, because her trust is reduced by the odd circumstances, which she experiences very infrequently (ca. once per year). On leaving the vet's office, she more fully understands that the case and a trip in the car (which she doesn't like) are coming. She has now lost sympathy with us, and claws in ways designed to prevent her from going into the case, and she draws blood if the people are not careful. Thus the many incidents of play are revealed to be not some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but as a voluntary withholding of the full force of her defenses– sympathy.
I may seem like a raving anthropomorphizer here, but the differences in cognitive state, when you live in close contact with them (or observe them carefully in the wild) among amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (especially predatory mammals) are astounding. Darwin, of course, lived most of his life in the country, raised pigeons, and always had dogs which he studied carefully (see especially The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals), and I think this helped him to see the continuity of behavior, especially social, and even moral, between man and the animal kingdom. It's a little harder to notice with mice and hamsters (which, when kept as pets, tend not to be handled as much as cats and dogs), but the cognitive advance of Peyton over my turtle (who has a gentle disposition, and is noticeably brighter than my giant toad) is striking.
Thanks to Greg for this, and of course to the highly ethical Peyton as well.