Knowing Right From Wrong
By Cary Neeper
Cats and dogs, it is said, have a different notion of right and wrong. Well, maybe.
My experience with cats was limited to Oscar, the kitten we raised with our new puppy, Boots, on a 40-acre fruit ranch in Hayward, Calif. Oscar was true to his belief that cats did not belong in houses, until the day he died, when he insisted on laying himself to rest under the stove.
In contrast, dogs are extraordinarily tuned into their beloved owners. I believe that sensitivity defines their moral behavior, including obvious feelings of guilt. However, super-sensitivity to us humans may occasionally go astray, limiting their natural instincts. At first, after our dog Skates produced a single pup, she would look at me and whine for help when the pup wandered away from her.
In recent years, DeeDee and Scooter over-reacted whenever I expressed some frustration in trying to paint something difficult (like the octopus playing with Rubics cube). I was careful to be firm, not furious, when the dogs did something “wrong,” especially as their old age caught up to them.
There are many stories of dolphins exhibiting protective behavior, like helping struggling humans in water. Elephants help their young when in trouble, and mother birds act as wounded decoys to lure hunters away from their young. Like birds, African wild dogs give alarm calls when a hunter (like a cheetah) appears.
Meerkats routinely post sentinels. Crows and sparrows both gang up on ravens or hawks. Pelicans and crows (and horses) are known to care for the blind.
Chimps lead other chimps to ripe fruit, and in a test situation, 87 percent of monkeys refused to press levers for food when they realized that it gave others a shock.
Of course it depends how one might define right and what makes something wrong, but the generalization holds in the obvious sense of the phrase.