Sympathy for the human: further consideration of my cat Peyton

by Greg Mayer

I gave a public lecture yesterday at my university entitled “Is There a Moral Instinct?”  Part of what I did was to elaborate on the theme of Steve Pinker’s rudimentary moral sentiments– sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt– and how I see them exemplified in the behavior of my cat, Peyton.  I showed some video of Peyton-human interactions, including the following, showing trust. She’s exposing her belly and throat for scratching in a way that makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure.

In this next video she’s playing with me, and in doing so holding back from scratching and biting strongly. She wasn’t really very interested in playing at the time, and I had to initiate it, but note that she does not leave, which she easily could do. As I described in a previous post, when her sympathy and trust are removed, she’s quite capable of inflicting painful wounds. The gentle bites and scratches of play are not due to some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but rather are an action that mitigates harm to another– sympathy.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    So, even dogs and cats have a moral or pre-moral bent to their behavior.

    I do agree, but why is it that religious people lack the morals? The more religious they are, the less tolerant they become and the more likely to hurt or maim or murder.

    I recently read Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil: Why people Cheat, Share, Gossip, & Follow the Golden Rule” which touched on the some of the same topics, although many of his arguments were poor. He did put forth a few good ideas.

  2. Flaffer
    Posted August 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    On the belly/throat exposing and trust: it seems quite possible (and probable) that rather then the cat “feeling trust”, the cat just lacks fight or flight reactions to you. In a way this is trust, but it does not necessarily require a particular mental state but rather a specific set of behaviors and the lack of other behaviors.

5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] a temporal sense of events is something that I could not see in my considerations of the moral sense of my cat Peyton. It seems a major advance in cognition, and also in the development of a full […]

  2. […] adaptive significance (if any) of spots and stripes, I recalled that my cat, Peyton (see here and here), had some pattern elements quite reminiscent of tigers (beyond being a tiger tabby– the […]

  3. […] Quite aside from the all too frequent times when human beings’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness (see any newspaper), a point made by, among others, Sam Harris, the statement is jarring to anyone at all acquainted with the behavior of vertebrate animals, especially a phylogenetically diverse group of them. The incipient stages of the development of the moral sense, and the gradations in the complexity of familial and social behavior in animals, have long been known and documented (see, e.g. Darwin’s accounts in Expression of the Emotions and Descent of Man), but they’re also pretty evident to anyone who’s owned a dog. Indeed, among my earliest contributions to the WEIT blog was an application of Steve Pinker’s “rudimentary moral sentiments” to my cat, Peyton. […]

  4. […] have occasionally joined hands, mostly in the person (?feline) of my cat Peyton (see here and here). Well, it turns out dogs can have a moral sense too. PZ Myers has a wonderful video of a dog in […]

  5. […] the philosophical cat, who has previously contributed to our discussions here at WEIT on morality, ethics, and epistemology. But, as a semi-regular contributor, she is ineligible for the Kitteh Contest, so […]

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