By Julia Williams
A few weeks ago, when my cat Rocky guest wrote a post on How to Spoil Your Cat, he mocked me for making a big deal out of his counter surfing when company was there. He implied that I freely allow him to get on the kitchen counters when no one is looking, which is only partially true. I do make a bigger fuss when people are over, because I know how ‘icky’ it is for many people to see cats walking on surfaces where food is prepared. However, it’s not like I love him getting up there. It grosses me out too, but I have tried everything known to man to keep him off the counters, and nothing works. Whenever there’s food preparation going on or I’m dishing the FELIDAE cat food into their bowls, he’s right there in my way, trying to steal anything he can get his paws on. Let’s just say he’s earned his nicknames, Naughty McNaughterson and Quick Paw McGraw, and that should speak volumes about my ordeal with this cat and kitchen counters.
Rocky’s post prompted a reader to comment that they believed in disciplining their cat to teach it what was acceptable behavior and what was unacceptable. I laughed and told my friend, “Oh, Rocky knows it’s wrong to get up there, but he does it anyway.” This got me to thinking about animals and whether they really do have a capacity to know right from wrong. Plenty of people are adamant that animals don’t have any sense of morality or the ability to think about such concepts as ‘right and wrong’ in the same way that humans do. Many claim animals are incapable of complex human emotions and have no grasp of concepts like right and wrong.
But Professor Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado disagrees. He believes that morals are ‘hard-wired’ into the brains of all mammals. “The belief that humans have morality and animals don’t is a long-standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case,” he said. Professor Bekoff presented his case in a book called Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals which I’ve not read but now have on my wish list.
I was only kidding when I told my friend that Rocky knew what he was doing was wrong, but I was intrigued by the possibility nonetheless. So much so, that I decided to conduct an informal poll among my pet loving friends. I asked them if they believed dogs and cats knew right from wrong. The responses I got were about half yes and half no. Regardless of which side they were on, people gave various examples and reasons why they believed one way or the other. This proved even more thought provoking.
One person said yes, that dogs know when they are naughty. But is knowing they are naughty the same as knowing right from wrong? What is ‘knowing they are naughty’ if not knowing they are wrong? Several others spoke about ‘guilty looks’ that indicated the pet knew what they had done was wrong. But can animals feel guilty? And if they can, isn’t that the same as knowing right from wrong? Of those who answered no to my initial question, many said that what the pets have is training and a learned response. So, if Rocky has learned he isn’t supposed to be on the counter, does that mean he knows it’s wrong?
Everyone agrees that dogs and cats are capable of learning. We teach our pets things every day. But is learning what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t acceptable, the same thing as knowing right from wrong? Acceptable behavior, after all, could be considered right and unacceptable behavior, then, would be wrong.
For just one day, or even just one hour, I would love to be inside the mind of an animal. I think if all humans could do this, if we could walk in our pet’s paws for just a brief moment in time and see things from their perspective, it might change everything we think we know about them.
Top photo by Jacob Davies
Bottom photo by Aaron Weinstein
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