In his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, the philosopher John Gray mines his lifetime studying cats to test the limits of western philosophy. In this extract, Gray asserts that a cat’s lack of self and ability to live in the moment is a strength that humans can only wish they had.
“We inherit the belief that morality in its highest form means altruism – that is, selflessness or living for others. Empathy, in this tradition, is the heart of the good life. Cats, on the other hand – except where their kittens are concerned – show few signs of sharing the feelings of others. They may sense when their human companions are distressed, and keep them company through a time of trouble. They may be good companions for the sick and the dying. But cats are not sacrificing themselves in any of these roles. Just by being there, they are giving human beings relief from sorrow.
“As predators, a highly developed sense of empathy would be dysfunctional for cats. That is why they lack this capacity. It is also why the popular belief that cats are cruel is mistaken. Cruelty is empathy in a negative form. Unless you feel for others, you cannot take pleasure in their pain. Humans displayed this negative empathy when they tortured cats in medieval times. In contrast, when cats play with a captured mouse they are not revelling in its torment. Teasing their prey expresses their nature as hunters. Rather than torturing creatures in their power – a singularly human predilection – they are playing with them.”
Studies show that cats may recognize their names, but when they are called may not care to respond. Their history of interacting with humans has not left them so dependent that they need to answer to the name humans know them by. Unlike dogs, they have not acquired any of the human sense of self. Certainly they distinguish themselves from a world that is outside of them. But it is not an ego or self in them that interacts with the world; it is the cat itself.
Feline ethics is a kind of selfless egoism. Cats are egoists in that they care only for themselves and others they love. They are selfless in that they have no images of themselves they seek to preserve and augment. Cats live not by being selfish but by selflessly being themselves.
Traditional moralists will resist the very idea of feline ethics. How can a creature be moral if it cannot grapes principles of right and wrong? Surely only behavior that is enacted to obey such principles can be moral. Human action must have a reason that can be known to the actor, otherwise there can be no morality.
It is a familiar refrain. But if this is what morality requires, humans cannot be moral either. True, they may come up with some principle or other and then try to stick to it. But they have very little idea why they act as they do. Why one principle, and not another? If two or more principles conflict, how can they decide between them? If they find a reason for acting as they do, how do they know it has moved them to act? Human beings no more choose to act ‘morally’ than they choose to sneeze or yawn. Philosophies in which a good life consists of self-chosen behaviour are sleights of hand whose purpose is to fool the conjuror.
Lying behind these objections is the belief that a good life is one that pursues an idea of the good. An idea here means a kind of vision, as in Plato. Having glimpsed the good, we spend our lives struggling to approach it. Cats do nothing of the kind, of course. Though they can see in the dark, scent and touch are more important in their lives. A good life is one they have felt and smelt, not a dim sighting of something far away.
Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 24 November ($24). To order a copy, go to onegrandbooks.