Sympathy for the human: further consideration of my cat Peyton

March 3, 2009 • 11:39 am

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.

7 thoughts on “Sympathy for the human: further consideration of my cat Peyton

  1. 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. 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.

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