49. ‘Cats vs. Dogs’, Morally Considered

It is time to discuss an age-old debate that has endured over centuries and immediately polarises groups of people; Are cats better than dogs? Our first impressions of cats are generally concerning their radical individualism and their comically stereotypical indifference. Dogs on the other hand possess a pack-instinct and display tireless curiosity and wonder at the world. To really mark the contrast between these animals, let us say that cats are ethical egoists and that dogs are ethical altruists. Ethical egoists contend that ethical actions are those that benefit the doer of the action, whereas ethical altruists believe that ethical actions are those that have positive impacts on other individuals, without a consideration for themselves. In short, cats are self-interested and dogs are self-denying.

So far we have only really discussed the ethical modes of thought behind man’s best friend and man’s indifferent companion. We initially asked whether cats are better than dogs without any consideration of what it ethically means for something to be better than another thing. Let’s correct that question and ask which of these furry creatures is morally better than the other. On the individual level, to be purely self-interested is more prudent than being purely self-denying and disregarding your own safety. So far, cats are in the lead. However, on the collective level, wholesale self-denial can lead to a better world than pure self-interest can. This remarkable observation is backed up by how the different social tendencies of these creatures. The self-denying dogs hunt in packs, performing sacrifices when necessary and the self-interested cats are solitary and protect themselves without being concerned about others. All of this is dependent on the world in which cats and dogs live, but if they have no idea about the world which they will be flung into, should they be self-interested or self-denying?

In a discussion about the two most common domestic pets, we have introduced ourselves to game theory – the complex study of strategies, which weighs out the outcomes of actions depending on the interactions of other people. If everyone commits to the canine way of life – pure self-denial – the outcome will be far better than if everyone committed to the feline way of life. On the other hand, without any prior knowledge of the world, being behind a “veil of ignorance” it would be individually safer but collectively worse. The contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit (1942- ), noticed that the theory of self-interest can in fact be indirectly self-defeating since it tells us to do what would be best for ourselves. Theoretically, if the world was entirely transparent and trustworthy, the theory of self-interest would tell us (ironically) to follow the theory of self-denial. Dogs, naturally disposed to self-denial, regardless of the initial conditions of their world, are less morally prudent but more morally considerate. If our goal is a more secure and giving world, dogs are morally better than cats.


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