Do animals have morality? A response: “For I will consider my cat Peyton”

February 16, 2009 • 1:18 pm


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.

18 thoughts on “Do animals have morality? A response: “For I will consider my cat Peyton”

  1. NB: “Darwin, of course…… always had dogs…”

    But this touches on something I’ve wondered of late. Probably far from novel, but how many of those who vehemently subscribe to creationism are unable to relate to a dog (OK, and/or a cat)? Some, probably, but probably no fewer than the general population. I think it could be argued that those who can relate give tacit admission to their biological relationship to other mammals.

  2. We have two dogs, a Border Collie and an Australian Cattle Dog, both comparatively intelligent breeds. We’ve noticed that they both seem to anticipate being in trouble when having done something wrong (like pooing inside, chewing a shoe). They have that skulking, “I’ve been bad” look, and they display this before we’ve even discovered the misdemeanour. In fact, we know to look for the crime in question when we see this behaviour.

    I don’t know if this could be classified as “guilt”, but it does appear to be a sense of future consequences for past actions, a reasonably sophisticated cognitive ability, I’d have thought.

    Your friend Dr Mayer is absolutely right when he makes reference to the importance of living in close proximity with animals in order to observe their behaviour. Before I owned dogs, I certainly would have been skeptical about the complexity of their emotional worlds.

  3. “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.

    I had a cat who exhibited the quality of understanding retribution.

    My brother accidentally kicked Beau in his testicles, when the cat tried to get around him on the stairs. Beau stalked my brother all day, until he fell asleep on the couch watching TV. Then he pounced, clawing and biting at my brother’s face and neck.

    My brother was paranoid for a long time after that about the cat’s whereabouts in relation to his feet…

  4. 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.
    About 25 years ago, I learned that cats can be travelers after I adopted a kitten right before my job decided to transfer me. I had no choice but to drive cross-country with her. Forever after that, she loved riding in the car. If I jangled my keys, she was ready to go. She’d even stretch across my dash on sunny days–and go to sleep!

    I’ve used a similar method of teaching them how to enjoy car trips since then (albeit now with a kitty case and in shorter but daily trips), and it seems to work best when I start with a kitten under 3 or 4 months old. This seems like a time they’re most impressionable.

    One of my current cats was at least 5 y/o when I got her, and she’d rather not get in the case or car, thanks very much. But she’ll go in without much fuss, compared to how she used to act. Once she’s in the case, then in the car, she’s anywhere from a little to a lot yowly at first, but she settles down after it kicks in that all the yowling won’t change that she’s on a trip.

    I keep a good quantity of water on hand (it seems like they dry out in cars more than we do). Some treats, too, but many cats are too nervous then to eat. And yeah, I usually end up putting in the carrier some trinket from home, too. My old lady tuxedo kitty settles down faster when I put in one of the old shirts from my rag bin (one of her favorite sleeping spots).

  5. I will add to the stories about cat trust. There was a semi feral field cat by the farm house I lived in. She liked people well enough but there was no way she would be a house cat. She gave birth to a litter that very exposed. Being a cat person,

    I played with her kittens and she allowed me to. After about a week, the cat decided that her litter was not safe and moved them to a much more secluded area.

    I went for my play time with her kittens and the cat saw me. She walked up to me, meowed immediately turned around to walk away. She turned her head to see that I was following. She lead me to her new site, a place I would not have gone on my own. The cat trusted me with her kittens. And in a strange way, I was proud that I was trusted and impressed that she found a way to communicate with me.

  6. Dogs not only understand the idea of fairness, but can even count. They play games with each other and at least some can trick another out of its treat.

    Rats are pretty savvy; I’m strongly biased, but I and most of my family have found them affectionate.

    At least some fish can be demonstratively emotional (well, one arowana my brother had) and even a cabbage moth, drifting through the yard like a piece of wind-driven debris, seemed to manage to visit the same flowers every day at about the same time. It seemed deliberate.

  7. Further to canine intelligence, dogs are well known for their poor sense of spatial relations, to wit all the dogs on chains who wind themselves around a post but will never unwind themselves. This was even the subject of the most recent Get Fuzzy.

    However….. (and I will preface this by saying that I wouldn’t believe it if it was you telling me the story), when I was 12 (~45yrs ago) I spent the summer selling pop and those little individual Hostess pies to the workmen building houses at the other end of the subdivision. My faithful dachshund Jupiter tagged along. I was inside a house whose rough walls, roof & floors were in place, but there were no windows in place yet. This was the kind of house cut into a hillside, so the front entry was at grade, while the basement was at grade out back. A workman I’d just sold a pie to was sitting in a large picture-window opening on the main floor. His pie, unwrapped, was sitting beside him. With complete determination, Jupiter jumped (forelegs only) up to the window ledge and with his nose flipped the pie over the ledge to the ground below. Then, without a bit of hesitation he wheeled 180 and made a bee-line for the ramp out the front entrance, raced around to the back of the house, and grabbed the pie. I was speechless, and so was the carpenter, who finally said “If that dog’s that damn smart, he can have that pie!”

  8. “And in various forms of play, she holds back from scratching and biting strongly.”

    My cat also does this — when she is fighting or feels threatened she will scratch and bite with full force, breaking skin and leaving bleeding scratch marks. When she plays, she will nip at me, but never break the skin. But she does one other thing, only with me, which I find immensely endearing. Sometimes, if she is sitting in my lap or sleeping in my bed and I make a sudden move which she is not expecting, she’ll pounce and bite (I believe out of instinct), but afterward, she will give me two or three tongue licks on the place she has just bitten. It always feels like an apology — her way of assuring me no harm was meant.

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