A feeling of sympathy

Consuela's eyeMy cat has eyelashes. Or close enough to, with that fringe of fur over her eyes. With her eyes downcast, reflective, behind them, how can I not see a person there?

And if I were to contemplate, for a moment, that it might not, on any level, be a person I see in Consuela’s eyes, how then to explain how she could be so adept at reading the person in mine?

* * *

Among other things, Consuela can get me to:

  • get up (stretches up against the closed blinds, making them bang and clatter; stomps across the doona and me; meows)
  • let her outside (leads me to door, or sits in front of it; stretches up and taps me on the shoulder if I’m sitting down; meows)
  • let her inside (bangs on screen door or jumps up onto windowsill; meows)
  • top up her food bowl (leads me to, or looks meaningfully at, bowl; rubs against cupboard where food is stored – or fridge, if she’s hoping for tuna; meows)
  • switch on the cold water just the right amount in the bathroom sink so that she can take a drink (leads me into bathroom; or sometimes just sits on closed toilet seat … for ten minutes if necessary)
  • play with her (looks at me with wide eyes, goes rigid, then whips out of sight to scrabble madly up and down the hallway, from kitchen to living room, including up and over the back of the futon couch – yes, I still have one of those – like it’s a large musical instrument – scritch, plink, plunk; leads me to, or attacks, the scratching post; meows)
  • take her onto my lap (gets a fuzzy look on her face; just gets right on up there – why not?).

She, in return:

  • respects my sleep for most of the night
  • doesn’t jump up on tables and counters
  • doesn’t shred stuff (… mostly)
  • doesn’t leave me any nasty surprises
  • only stares a little bit when I talk to myself
  • is affectionate and trusting.

In almost every one of our interactions, she is looking up into my eyes. It’s true, she seems attuned to the tone of my voice as well, and to the particular significance of at least some of the sounds that I make (i.e. ‘ … nibbles?’). We ‘talk’ a lot: i.e. I say something, she responds with a meow of appropriate vigour and tone, depending on what she wants. She also pays attention to my physical movements, at least the ones that might affect her (opening the back door to the garden; settling down in a chair; packing a suitcase). What, then, does she get from looking into my eyes that she cannot get from my voice, body language and actions alone?

If there’s one thing that drives her crazy, it’s when I sit and watch television for a prolonged period. She sits a little way from my feet and looks up at me, refusing to budge, as I blob on the couch. Where have I gone? She instantly relaxes when I look down and pay proper attention to her. Phew! I’m back. Perhaps she finds the long, unbroken stare towards that noisy box behind her head strange and unnerving. What on earth am I doing?

When I hold her on my lap, sometimes she gazes steadily up into my eyes … just gazes … and purrs.

Right now it’s cold. There are always two chairs at my desk: one for me, and one for her. She’s standing on her chair now, tapping on my shoulder with one paw, looking up into my face. She wants to get onto my lap. But there isn’t quite room enough for her here – I have to say ‘no’.

She’s a gentle cat, but a few times she has batted me on the cheek – a bit too close to an eye – when she and I were face-to-face like this. Wha–??? It was my glasses – and especially it seemed to be my new glasses, which have slightly thicker frames and stronger lenses. When I take the glasses off, or even just lift them away from my eyes as I look back at her, the subtle pre-strike tension in her face and body melts away.

When my glasses are on, does she see enlarged and aggressive eyes, potentially harmful intent, despite our close relationship? It’s obvious that she is gauging how I’m responding to her – not just that I’m looking at her.

And that when my eyes disappear in the creases of a smile, all is right between us. The same as when she gazes up at me and purrs.

* * *

According to Josh Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale, the results of a recent study he has conducted with George Newman and Paul Bloom suggest that people tend, not only to believe in a true self, but to ‘think that the true self is whichever part of you is morally good’. That is, whichever part those people think is morally good.

Am I doing something similar with Consuela? Do I think of her as a ‘person’ – a creature like myself with a ‘true self’ – because she behaves in a way that I see, not only as reflective of my own behaviour in many ways, e.g. in the way her meows often mirror my speech, but as ‘good’?

While we’re at it: how ‘morally good’ is an animal likely to be? A cat like Consuela?

And what might connect her moral qualities to mine?

* * *

I doubt Consuela has a sense of right and wrong. But she does have a sense of something being bad. For example, with scratching on the carpet, which is forbidden but I’m afraid often repeated. Even when I go to turn around glowering in my chair to cry out ‘Consuela!’ she will usually stop the moment my chair starts to swivel, crouching over the offending bit of carpet, eyes wide. But sometimes she won’t stop, and keeps going, flattening her ears and, it almost seems, clenching her teeth while she bloody well does it anyway. She seems like a very young child breaking out and doing that thing she was told absolutely not to do.

* * *

The biological basis of morality is currently a matter of intense debate – although we have by no means only just started thinking about it.

In the Descent of Man, published in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote:

The social instincts, which no doubt were acquired by man, as by the lower animals, for the good of the community, will from the first have given him some wish to aid his fellows, and some feeling of sympathy.

Morality has long been seen as the domain of religion and of philosophy. Current books on the evolution of morality frequently refer back to the ideas of philosophers such as David Hume, as well as to variants of the Golden Rule – e.g. Rabbi Hillel’s ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour’.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ is also often quoted – usually to indicate that science today generally challenges such a notion, of a fundamentally cruel world.*

These days, scientists across numerous disciplines, including psychology, primatology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, are also looking closely at the development of human morality. In fact, there is a new, blended, field having specifically to do with morality: moral cognition.

Moral Tribes coverJoshua Greene, in Moral Tribes (2013), reiterates the idea that morality evolved to enable ‘otherwise selfish individuals’ to cooperate. Cooperation evolved because it ‘confers a survival advantage’. (It wouldn’t have evolved if it didn’t.) And he says: ‘The essence of morality is altruism, unselfishness, a willingness to pay a personal cost to benefit others.’

(None of this is new. He builds on these ideas to explore the foundational idea of his book, that we – humanity – need to work towards developing a metamorality that transcends ‘tribal’ differences and localised moralities.)

Franz de Waal, in a paper published in Evolved Morality (Behaviour 151, 2014), considers the way that many animals exhibit a de facto (if not necessarily conscious) standard of behaviour in their social interactions. Evolved Morality coverHe documents how our close relatives, chimpanzees, display elements of moral behaviour, e.g. by actively pursuing courses of action that reduce conflict and competition, and that produce harmony in their relationships. He also speaks of ‘impulse control’, particularly in relation to social inhibitions, having ‘paved the way for human morality’.

In a quite different take on the evolution of human morality, Patricia S. Churchland, also in Evolved Morality, sees mammalian care for offspring as one of several key developments. She says, ‘…the mammalian brain had to be organized to do something completely new: take care of others in much the way she takes care of herself.’ The mother not only seeks to keep her babies ‘warm, fed and safe’; she takes pleasure in it, just as her babies take pleasure in being looked after. In fact, they take pleasure in being together, and feel pain at being separated, to the extent that the mother may feel pain when her baby is in need, has fallen out of a nest, etc. Churchland seems to be suggesting that this was the origin of the development of empathy as well.

She lists ‘learning local practices and the ways of others’; ‘recognition of others’ psychological states’ and ‘problem-solving in a social context’ as the other key capacities, not unique to humans, on which morality depends.

* * *

Back, then, to the question, ‘How morally good is Consuela?’ Nevermind ‘good’, for the moment: does Consuela display moral qualities at all?

Revisiting Patricia Churchland’s list of key capacities for moral development with Consuela in mind, it would be difficult, first of all, to go past the fundamental idea of mammalian care of offspring, and the way close mammalian relationships are defined by care given over a sustained period.

Consuela seeks to be close to me, welcomes me home, often follows me from room to room. Even when all her other needs are met, such as food, water, play and warmth, there seems to be something beyond that – interaction? companionship? – that matters to her.

Though she may not be consciously doing this for my benefit, to positively care for me, her behaviour nevertheless does benefit me. It gives me comfort, joy, pleasure, affirmation of being. As a result, I am extra gentle and loving with her.

True, not all cats are like this: she happens to be a sociable cat, adept at reading and fitting in with human ways. But this is also a facet of moral behaviour, Churchland suggests, this ability to ‘learn local practices and the ways of others’. Consuela and I have routines and agreements, really a whole suite of human ‘ways’ into which she fits herself. Likewise, I do my best to respond to her requirements as a cat.

In her ‘reading and fitting in’ behaviour Consuela is also, to a degree, recognising ‘others’ psychological states’ – perhaps not always correctly (as when she swats my face when my glasses disturb her) – but nevertheless, she is, on some level, reading me, or attempting to.

The final key capacity that Churchland lists is ‘problem-solving in a social context’. I may not have a handle on just what Churchland means here, but it seems to me that Consuela’s figuring out how to get me to do all the things that she wants from me – per my list at the beginning of this post – displays a reasonable degree of problem-solving. I mean, stretching up against the blinds so they clatter and clank, to get me up in the morning? That’s problem-solving. She’s doing just what she needs to to achieve the desired result, but nothing more costly (as whipping me across the face with her claws would be).

* * *

Can I say that Consuela is morally good, or at least that she displays the foundations of good moral behaviour? Yes, I think I can, at least as far as you can say this about a being who does not, as far as we know, consciously and positively decide to be one way or another; who does not consciously and positively consider the well-being of others. But she does not harm me or others, and she tends towards behaviour I consider good. And so: morally good she seems to me.

* * *

As for what connects Consuela’s moral qualities to mine: it seems that she and I engage on a social level – her cat ways intersecting with my human ways. And somewhere in that place where our ways intersect, moral behaviours seem to be operating, at least on the most basic level.

* * *

With her eyes downcast, reflective … how can I not see a person there?


* Interestingly, the lines ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’ come from the same poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., which Tennyson wrote as a requiem to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

2 thoughts on “A feeling of sympathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s