The Ethicist: Can My Cat Go Out if He Bullies Other Cats?

October 15, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Can My Cat Go Out if He Bullies Other Cats?

Playing outside is my cat’s greatest joy. During the long Maine winters, he stares wistfully out the window. The moment the snow melts, he’s outside climbing trees and running laps. The whole street knows my cat, Jasper, by name. Children play with him; he follows the mailman door to door; one neighbor even took photos of him, framed them and gave them to me.

Jasper loves people and dogs but loathes cats. Almost daily, I’ll hear the wailings of another cat, and I know Jasper is at fault. He doesn’t outright fight them, but he corners them, intimidates them and chases them, often until the other cat screams, bolts and goes into her own home. Some cat-owning neighbors say: “I love Jasper, he’s so friendly! But he does torture my cat.” Others just say, “He tortures my cat.”

Keeping Jasper inside would lessen Jasper’s quality of life, and arguably those who love him would be sad. But I know he’s bullying a handful of cats. What’s the ethical thing to do? Heather Steeves, Maine

My response: I’ve responded to writers in this column for years and I still don’t get what motivates the New York Times to pick the letters it does. I presume its main motivation is to generate clicks and readers to promote ad sales, but at what cost?

If I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe that the paper would choose to sacrifice people’s ability to navigate life’s challenges by posting everyday questions that you don’t need to study philosophy to approach—on the contrary, that an abstract philosophical approach distracts from effective resolution.

How to handle cats seems more a question to ask a grandmother or grandfather than a newspaper columnist or philosopher. You can call any question ethical and make it sound elevated to people who buy into that theoretical perspective. I would think anyone can tell the problem has no slam-dunk resolution that everyone would agree is best. You have to do your best, accepting that some will disagree—that is, there is no ideal one “ethical” thing to do.

The relevant parties are the other cat owners. If you want, you can consider the cats’ feelings, though not everyone would agree, but then yet others would disagree if you don’t.

By promoting people writing a newspaper instead of talking to relevant people and exercising their problem-solving skills, the New York Times seems to undermine its readers ability to navigate the world as adults who think and solve problems for themselves.

The New York Times response:

You’re loyal to Jasper, and so you justly give considerable weight to his happiness. And in taking pleasure in his outings, he’s evidently a source of pleasure for lots of other creatures. For other cats, and for many of their owners, he’s a source of distress. I’m assuming there’s no easy fix: Most domestic cats are spayed or neutered, and if yours were an unaltered tom, you would have mentioned it. You could confer with a vet or an animal-behavior expert to see if there’s anything else you can do to change Jasper’s ways. But suppose you can’t. How to think through this quandary?

One approach is a rights-based line of reasoning; it would urge you to ensure that you’re not denying the cats of the neighborhood the basic conditions of a good life to which they’re entitled. Are Jasper’s outings encroaching on their security and freedom? Are his feline victims entitled to relief?

Among philosophers of animal welfare, the fur flies between those who think animals have rights and those who think they don’t. Skeptics say it makes no sense to talk about animal rights for the same reason it makes no sense to hold Jasper morally responsible for his actions. (Because he has no notion that what he’s doing is bad, he’s not a moral agent in any relevant sense.) If animals don’t have rights, you might adopt another approach, in which you simply weigh the pleasure that Jasper takes and gives in his outings against the suffering of the cats he bullies. This “utilitarian” calculation takes no account of rights or duties (just as rights-based theories tend to ignore the pleasure-minus-pain formulas of the utilitarians). But it’s sensitive to the empirical facts.

Cats, especially males, are prone to be aggressive with one another, and the resulting screams sound pretty awful. It’s possible to exaggerate the amount of suffering involved. The danger posed by serious catfights comes from the fact that deep wounds are one of the principal ways that feline leukemia and immunodeficiency disease are transmitted. You suggest, though, that the problem is assault rather than battery — that Jasper is the kind of bully whose hiss is worse than his bite. So it may be that, on balance, letting him go about his business is better than shutting him indoors.

Just don’t forget to figure in the distress of your cat-owning neighbors. You justly give considerable weight to Jasper’s happiness. Other cat owners, curiously, will have similar attitudes toward their own cats. Even if animals don’t have rights, their human companions do. In the rights-based tradition, then, you should think about your duties to your human neighbors.

In short, there’s no simple decision procedure here. But then philosophers have long been confounded by cats. Consider the person who originated utilitarianism, the calculus of pleasure and pain that has done so much to advance animal welfare — namely, the Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He taught a cat to eat macaroni at his table (and rewarded him with a doctorate), but he didn’t have much luck in curbing these creatures’ bad habits. Of another of his cats, Bentham declared, “His moral qualities were most despotic — his intellectual extraordinary: But he was a universal nuisance.”


I’m an undergraduate researcher at a center focused on policy work. Another undergrad and I were hired to assist with administrative and research-based tasks; half our stipend was paid before we started, and the other half is to be paid after our last day. We committed to working 30 hours a week and are expected to sign in and out. I noticed that my co-worker was spending significantly less time at the office than I was, but I shrugged it off. Then I saw that he was lying about his hours. These lies went beyond the occasional generous estimate — arriving at 10:10 but writing 10:00 on the sign-in sheet. He said he spent two whole days at the center when he wasn’t even there. If I mention this to our boss, I risk coming off as spiteful. However, I’m troubled by the fact that I’m putting in more work, yet we get equal credit. And watching him lie about his hours without consequence doesn’t make me want to sit in a cubicle for 30 hours a week. What should I do? Name Withheld

My response: “What should I do?” is a question children ask their parents before they learn to think and act for themselves. Adults can ask it too, but I suggest you’d help yourself more by figuring out for yourself your best course, asking for considerations and views you may not have thought of to help you decide.

Others may see college otherwise, but I consider it a place to learn, mainly to become an adult and citizen. I used to think most school learning happened in the classroom, but I’ve grown to consider extra-curricular learning more important.

I suggest viewing this situation as a chance to learn. Instead of asking others what you should do, figure out for yourself what you could do. What options do you have? What resources? What risks? What skills? Ask and answer as many of the relevant questions you can, create a strategy, get advice, and so on.

You’ll make mistakes. You may regret them in the short term, but they are the best way to learn, I’ve found. The experience you gain will help you more in the long term than any answer to “What should I do?”, no matter how vaunted the authority. Not practicing risks you stunting your emotional and social development. You can handle this.

The New York Times response:

Clearly, supervision at your job is lax, and your sluggard classmate is taking advantage of that. Both the dishonesty and the breach of the employment terms are wrong. And there are good reasons to discourage bad behavior in others. What evolutionary psychologists call “altruistic punishment,” in which you penalize someone in a way that offers no direct advantage to you, is part of a package of psychological traits that ensures the good of the social group. This explains why we might feel the urge to inflict such punishment; but it’s also true that, with some caveats, it’s often a good thing to do. It might even help your colleague in his career to know there are penalties for misbehavior.

You’re right, though, that others may judge your motives negatively. I might, too. Your response is focused on what the wrongdoer’s behavior means for you. It’s that he’s being unfair to you that distresses you, not that he’s dishonest and unfair to your employer. And you’re worried that his getting away with it will reduce your motivation, which suggests that you don’t think that doing what you committed to do is sufficient motivation. Neither of these sentiments reflects especially well on you. But it’s just another fact of our psychology that when the rewards are perceived to be unfair, our commitment to a common enterprise can be undermined. I’d have a better view of you, though, if you did the right thing for the right reason. People, unlike cats, are moral agents. That’s why, in ethics, it matters not just what you do but why you do it.

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