cat problem and innate morality
Our neighbors to the east of us recently moved out (they were renting). In the last couple of months before they moved out, we think they adopted a young cat. They may not have and the cat may have just showed up recently, but it seemed to spend a lot of time in their yard, so we think it was their cat. Anyway, them adopting a cat would not, in itself, be a problem except they neglected the cat. It was left outside all the time and often wandered into our yard. And when they moved, they didn’t take the cat with them. Searching for food and companionship, the cat came over to our house. Now, if you know Debi and I, you’ll know that is a problem. We don’t hate other animals, but we’re also not fans of having animals as pets. It’s just not our thing. So, while I felt sorry for the cat, I wasn’t about to adopt it. And since the ownership status of the cat was in question, the first day or so of the cat trying to sneak into our house simply annoyed me but didn’t spur me into action to try to find it a home.
However, this kind of came to a head one evening when I was watching Toren and Debi was out of town. Toren and I were walking around the yard looking at some work we had done on the house (we just got new windows). The cat, probably hungry and certainly longing for attention, kept trying to brush up against my legs. I fully recognize my brutishness here, but, as I said, I’m not a pet person. The first couple of times the cat brushed up against my leg, aside from it scaring Toren who was originally walking with me, it didn’t bother me. But the cat got aggressive and was pushing through my legs. On one of these attempts to brush my leg I think I stepped on one of the cats paws and, in obvious self-defense, the cat clawed my leg (I was wearing my work clothes, which means I had on thin dress socks that had no chance against the cats claws). Now, rather than being sympathetic but mostly indifferent to the cat’s plight, I was annoyed. I was carrying Toren and didn’t want to drop him but also didn’t want to step on the cat again and didn’t want to get scratched. What to do? Using my foot, I tried to push the cat away. The cat would have none of it. It came right back (like this cat).
I got a little more aggressive, which escalated the cat’s response, and it clawed me again. Now I was getting angry. I pushed the cat away with my foot a bit more fervently:
It was at this point that something interesting happened: Toren started to cry. Toren wasn’t hurt in any of this and he had no specific reason to cry from pain or anything else. The cat hadn’t clawed him. Why was he crying, then? My best guess is that he felt sympathy for the cat and found my efforts to push the cat away with my foot disturbing. My lack of sympathy for a distraught cat upset my 17 month old toddler! Now, anyone who has had a child will know that kids at 17 months are not likely to have had advanced training in ethics or even had an intelligible conversation about the morality of human relations with other animals. We have started teaching Toren what things are right and wrong in our house (e.g., don’t throw your cheerios; don’t play with the DVD player, etc.), but this situation was completely novel. Toren had never been exposed to interactions between humans and cats. He has been around a few dogs, but not many, and he had certainly never seen anyone “fervently” push a cat away with his foot. Thus, in a completely novel situation, Toren determined that something immoral was happening and it bothered him so much he started to cry. Fascinating!
What this means, then, is that, assuming my interpretation of this incident is correct, my 17 month old son has an innate sense of morality and found my behavior in this situation disturbing. There is empirical evidence that this is the case (see here). I had read about this, but never observed it in action. Thus, this was a fascinating incident for me to observe. This also supports the idea that morality is, at least in some people, biologically programmed. Most humans (the exceptions being sociopaths) have at least a basic, innate sense of morality; it does not have to come from religion or philosophy!
For those interested, I eventually extricated myself from the cat and its claws, fought my way into our house (the cat tried to get in), and called animal control. It was after hours and no one answered. I was going to call again the next day they were open, but the cat disappeared and has not returned.