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 wasn't quite this fervently, but it was 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.

2 Replies to “cat problem and innate morality”

  1. I don’t know that the conclusion, he had a response to an “immoral” action, follows from the evidence. He may have been responding to your emotional state. You’re not exactly a hot tempered person, and his exposure to you behaving ‘fervently’ against anything, animate or inanimate, is probably limited. My son doesn’t like it when I get upset. Did he do anything in addition to crying that suggested his response was directed at sympathy for the cat?

    He may also have just been frightened at the novel situation which entailed violence.

    For the record, I wouldn’t necessarily call this an immoral action. You had tried to get the cat to leave in a peaceful manner, which ended up in him attacking you. In the animal kingdom, if one animal attacks another, a fight usually ensues. Your behavior was the same as most species. Not exactly immoral.

    The article you cited was likewise weak in it’s observation to conclusion logic. Mirror cells in the brain can mimic emotional reactions. There was no mention about controlling for emotional expression in the adult in these studies. What expressions were they displaying when they tore, or threatened to tear the pictures? How about when they fixed the picture? Coding only followed whether the child gave the game piece after the observation. There was no mention of what expression the children had relative to the observed behavior. Also no mention as to whether the game piece could be destroyed. The children could have simply been noticing cause and effect: Don’t trust this person with your toys. Three is plenty old enough to know some people don’t give your toys back.

    All those things could be just as valid explanations as an innate sense of morality. Action and motive are two separate things.

  2. @Ezra
    Ezra, all valid points. When Debi read this, her thought was the same – maybe Toren was crying because I was upset. That’s possible, but I really don’t think that was the case. I was upset and cursing at the cat (e.g., “stupid cat”) for a few minutes before I “fervently moved it away from us”. I was also upset and cursing after the cat got into the house, but Toren didn’t cry then, either. He did cry, however, when I “fervently” removed the cat from the house with my foot.

    You’re absolutely right that there are other plausible explanations, but it seems to me like Toren’s response was to me kicking the cat and not to me being upset. It may have been both, but he really only cried when I kicked the cat.

    As far as my action being “immoral,” you’re also right. It wasn’t necessarily immoral. I kind of feel like it was because I could have taken a different, more humane approach – I could have attempted to care for the cat temporarily while finding it a home. And I really did try to nudge the cat out of the way with my foot without kicking it (as a soccer player, I could really hurt the cat if I kicked it, and I certainly didn’t do that). I guess it seems immoral to me because there was another, non-violent alternative that I didn’t choose.

    As far as the article goes, that was just one example. I’ve seen a number of other, similar articles recently, all of which seem to be building a case for innate morality. I’ll look around to see if I still have them. Here’s some evidence for an evolutionary basis for morality per Wikipedia:

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