The Cat That Made Me Question

Let me preface this by saying that all I have is questions, no answers.

My father has a real farm, 300+ acres, cows, big tractors, and lots of haying equipment. It’s not at all like my dinky 10 acres, two pigs, chickens, and bees. On this real farm he has a barn with stacks of feed. Stacks of feed always equals lots of mice. So my dad always has barn cats. Their population waxes and wanes in direct proportion to the hunting adeptness of the local coyote population. This is unremarkable.

One day though, my dad went out to feed his feline warriors after an especially fecund period and found every single kitten dead, not eaten, just dead, and a new tomcat on the premises. What happened to the old tomcat we never knew. He was either killed or exiled by the new tom, or became coyote food.

What we did know was that the new tom, however he came to be cock of the walk, had killed all those kittens. That’s what happens when a new feline male takes over a pride with young. The death of the kittens causes the females to come back into estrus and the new tom gets to pass on his DNA. This is unremarkable in the natural world as well.

Fast forward to my Introduction to Moral Philosophy class. That class, of course, just happened to include a section on Utilitarianism which of course led to an exploration of Peter Singer and his animal liberation movement and his self-made “speciesism”. Suddenly, the cat that was so unremarkable made me question everything I was being taught.

It is no understatement that a major reason Peter Singer is so important is because he is so divisive and provocative. If he weren’t, he would probably exist in obscurity like the other 99.9% of current philosophers. But the fact is he is well known. His arguments often seem to  make sense despite his monstrous conclusions and millions of people around the world are forming their ethical frame on his ideas. Another fact is that being exposed to him has caused me to constantly reexamine my relationship to, well, I was going to say the natural world but that’s just the world.

Back to the cat.

We define morality as knowing the difference between right action and wrong action. We define ethics as a system of moral principles. A moral agent has the power to cause intentional harm to another. A subject of moral worth is anything that can be harmed.

I began to question, was the tomcat a moral agent?(I think not.) Or was he just a cat?(I think so.) If he was just a cat then does that mean that morality does not apply to him? If he is just a cat and we can’t hold him to the same moral standards as ourselves then doesn’t that make morality a purely human concept? If I see a cat bring a mouse to its injured mate and I call it kindness then don’t I also have to call the killing of these kittens murder? If I am not allowed to anthropomorphize one shouldn’t I also not anthropomorphize the other?

I seriously think these are important questions because if it does turn out that morality (knowing right action from wrong action vs. instinct or natural behavior) is purely human (even if it grew out of our evolutionary path) then it affects the way we apply it to the world outside our species. I’m not talking about whether we eat meat or not, or if factory farming is ethical. I’m talking about the view we have of our actual planet and ecology.

Michael Pollan in his article “An Animal’s Place” quotes Peter Singer thusly, “It must be admitted,” Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.”  And Matthew Scully as saying predation is “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design . . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.”

I would posit that Mr. Singer and Mr. Scully have decided that morality is innate and universal. I would also posit that pursuing action to support their decision would lead to catastrophic consequences not just for us but for all life on this planet.

Anyway, it’s almost 10 o’clock and I have to work tomorrow so I’ll sign off now. I truly look forward to your thoughts!

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4 thoughts on “The Cat That Made Me Question

    1. freethnkr1965

      I agree totally that my morals or even human morals at all don’t apply to the cat. I’m still not sure about whether the cat acts out of some moral imperative or just instinct or if perhaps the two are the same.

      And… I should’ve expounded on the “predation is evil” bit too – which I believe shows the fundamental error in Singer’s ethical framework. I think that it is our profound disconnect from nature that leads to both factory farming and animal liberation.

  1. All animals have survival methods. If you start with the premise that all living things are wired to survive and to ensure the best chances for their genetic offspring, the dispatching of rival kittens is just minimizing the competition. Nothing personal; just business.

    “Moral humans” are forever trying to apply their own moral constructs on the natural world. They deny, and thus are trapped by the fact, that they, too, are animals. The only difference is the extent of their reach and that they have a capacity for actual intentional cruelty. How moral is a species that endangers its own planet?

  2. Our family cat once caught a chipmunk and dropped it, unharmed, into a window well and simply wandered off and left it down there as her prisoner. As a compassionate kid I put a piece of wood in as a ramp so the chipmunk could escape, but I’ve always wondered about this. Why would a cat take a prisoner? Did she have some kind of plan for later? Do cats make plans? I’m not sure what she had in her schedule that prevented her from finishing off her prey immediately. Was this evil? It certainly appeared so to me as a human. She was spayed so had no kittens to provide for or educate. As a cat with a stable home and constant food supply she certainly didn’t need to hunt, although instincts of course play a role in that. I have never reached a conclusion on this. Cats hunting and eliminating their competition makes sense from a survival standpoint, but taking prisoners seems like a different story. I wonder when, why, and how humans began to separate ourselves from other animals and our instincts. We tend to label certain behaviours like what the tomcat did as evil, and I’m glad we did, but I’m curious as to how that came to be, and it does pose some interesting questions in regards to animal behaviour and human interactions with the rest of nature. I’m glad I found your blog today, looking forward to reading more of your posts!

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