Friday, April 6, 2012

Do Dogs and Cats Know Right From Wrong?

By Julia Williams

A few weeks ago, when my cat Rocky guest wrote a post on How to Spoil Your Cat, he mocked me for making a big deal out of his counter surfing when company was there. He implied that I freely allow him to get on the kitchen counters when no one is looking, which is only partially true. I do make a bigger fuss when people are over, because I know how ‘icky’ it is for many people to see cats walking on surfaces where food is prepared. However, it’s not like I love him getting up there. It grosses me out too, but I have tried everything known to man to keep him off the counters, and nothing works. Whenever there’s food preparation going on or I'm dishing the FELIDAE cat food into their bowls, he’s right there in my way, trying to steal anything he can get his paws on. Let’s just say he’s earned his nicknames, Naughty McNaughterson and Quick Paw McGraw, and that should speak volumes about my ordeal with this cat and kitchen counters.

Rocky’s post prompted a reader to comment that they believed in disciplining their cat to teach it what was acceptable behavior and what was unacceptable. I laughed and told my friend, “Oh, Rocky knows it’s wrong to get up there, but he does it anyway.” This got me to thinking about animals and whether they really do have a capacity to know right from wrong. Plenty of people are adamant that animals don’t have any sense of morality or the ability to think about such concepts as ‘right and wrong’ in the same way that humans do. Many claim animals are incapable of complex human emotions and have no grasp of concepts like right and wrong.

But Professor Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado disagrees. He believes that morals are ‘hard-wired’ into the brains of all mammals. “The belief that humans have morality and animals don’t is a long-standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case,” he said. Professor Bekoff presented his case in a book called Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals which I’ve not read but now have on my wish list.

I was only kidding when I told my friend that Rocky knew what he was doing was wrong, but I was intrigued by the possibility nonetheless. So much so, that I decided to conduct an informal poll among my pet loving friends. I asked them if they believed dogs and cats knew right from wrong. The responses I got were about half yes and half no. Regardless of which side they were on, people gave various examples and reasons why they believed one way or the other. This proved even more thought provoking.

One person said yes, that dogs know when they are naughty. But is knowing they are naughty the same as knowing right from wrong? What is ‘knowing they are naughty’ if not knowing they are wrong? Several others spoke about ‘guilty looks’ that indicated the pet knew what they had done was wrong. But can animals feel guilty? And if they can, isn’t that the same as knowing right from wrong? Of those who answered no to my initial question, many said that what the pets have is training and a learned response. So, if Rocky has learned he isn’t supposed to be on the counter, does that mean he knows it’s wrong?

Everyone agrees that dogs and cats are capable of learning. We teach our pets things every day. But is learning what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t acceptable, the same thing as knowing right from wrong? Acceptable behavior, after all, could be considered right and unacceptable behavior, then, would be wrong.

For just one day, or even just one hour, I would love to be inside the mind of an animal. I think if all humans could do this, if we could walk in our pet’s paws for just a brief moment in time and see things from their perspective, it might change everything we think we know about them.

Top photo by Jacob Davies
Bottom photo by Aaron Weinstein

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. wow - something to seriously think about. Mo is a "certified" counter surfer - and it is sorta my fault since I used to put him up there when he was little to treat his eye infection. Do I think he knows he isn't supposed to be up there? Yeah, I do. Do I think he knows it is "wrong"? Not sure - I think it is more he knows he gets yelled at every time he is up there. (I think he may believe his name is "hey get of the counter").

  2. Another very interesting topic. My cats certainly know when they do something of which I disapprove (the naughty stuff). But do they intrinsically think as humans do about "right" and "wrong?"

    I think not.

    That's not to say that each non-human doesn't have the code by which it lives--it would be hard-wired into them.

    Actually, I was just watching a documentary on lions, and it came up that roaming males looking for mates will come into a pride and kill the male cubs, if they can. (That is, if the pride's male lion is otherwise engaged or perhaps has been injured/defeated.) Does the intruding male lion think it's doing something right or wrong? I don't believe so. It's doing what it's hardwired to do--get rid of the babies with DNA from other males.

    I'm sure lions aren't the only species to kill young that it isn't their own.

    So I don't think human morals, as we've developed them, can be applied to non-humans.

    I also think that a human's moral code depends on the culture--there could be some things I personally find immoral or repugnant that others find quite normal.

    It's a matter of perspective.

    But do I think non-humans have a rich emotional life? Absolutely. Studies over recent years already have proved that many non-human species are far more intelligent and emotionally rich than many humans have given them credit for.

  3. I think that cats have a code of right and wrong for THEM, as felines. For us, they (mostly) obey rules, not morals. Although I sometimes detect a gleam of glee in their eyes when they "get away" with something...there may be more there than they let on. It's the Feline Mystique.

  4. Ours is the third home for our kitty, she has been here longest of all so she likes it here and likes the affection I give her.One of her earlier families had her declawed. But when she is laying on my bed, I use my fingers to sort of slap at her paws, she slaps back and the all of a sudden, it gets too rough and she doesn't like it and she gives me a little bite on my hand! She runs off but stops before she is out of the room and looks at me with great disappointment as if to say "See what you made me do, you made me lose my temper!" So to me there is no doubt she knows this is wrong. I have never scolded her for it, but somewhere she has learned this. So whether it was from one of her other families or from her own Mother (the best teacher of all) I don't know. I would like to read the book you mentioned too, I will have to look for it.

    Jo in Minnesota with Zkhat

  5. Great post and what fun to read everyone's opinion. I think one of these comments comes close to the answer, do they know the difference between right and wrong and that is, they do know but in their own world of dogs or world of cats but not the human world. In other words, the killing of the male kittens is the right thing to do in the big cat world. Great question.

  6. I agree that one could interpret the learned behaviors as knowing right from wrong but I still maintain that they don't. That is an interpretation of a behavior and as subject to discussion as any other interpretation including mine. They know when someone is unkind to them because of a behavior or action that they want to avoid that action from the human again. Is that morals? Not to me. It's learning. They are intelligent and they learn how to get along with the one who is in control of their lives.

  7. WTG Rocky I'm a counter surfer too!! I mean after all I'm a cat I jump. Mom says I'm like a 500 lb gorilla I go anywhere I please. Let's just say she uses 2 rolls of paper towels a week wiping. MOL Telling me not to jump is like telling a dog not to bark.
    Hugs Madi

  8. Must add that book to my list. You may also enjoy you The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson. I believe it is possible to with think like a cat or any other communicate inter-species on their level. It's not about anthropomorphizing but bridging the gap. Cat are more aware than we give them credit for.

  9. Pip seems to know when he does something he is not supposed to do - he looks guilty and puts his head down. The cats don't seem to know or care. LOL!

  10. This is fascinating!!! Katie usually writes all of our comments, but I (Glogirly) must step in here. I didn't think it was possible, but my husband insisted we train Katie on right/wrong/acceptable/unacceptable right from the start.

    He used some tactics like you would with a dog. ignoring her when coming home until he got upstairs, sat down, and was ready for her. Then he calls her and she trots right over to get her affection. Now she comes when he calls anytime, anywhere. We can tell she doesn't always want to, but she still comes, even if for a few seconds.

    Most impressive though is her ability to determine and remember what surfaces or items are off limits and not to be touched. Now we don't live in a military-like home...not even close. But by using a quick SSSSS sound (hiss) she has learned what's ok and not ok. We don't have to make that sound more than one or two times before she remembers and applies that to future behavior. I believe she has learned that anything with my husbands scent is likely off limits. He has LOTS of very fragile camera gear. If he's working with it, it may be scattered on the floor and tables. She has never touched it. Sniffed, yes. Inspected, yes. When folding laundry or packing suitcases, she will carefully walk between and around stacks of his clothes. Tempted, she might slowly raise a paw, just barely touching his stack...look at him and then remove her paw.

    Most of the furniture in the house is fair game, but she knows that tables are not. She knows that plates of our food are not...even if we are sitting on the living room floor.

    Most amazing though is tax season. Last week my husband had stacks of papers ALL over the living room floor. It was covered. She SO wants to be part of the action. But she knew...and without saying a word to her, she carefully stepped over and between every single stack. She even had to cross one leg over the other, side-stepping, and never touched a single sheet of paper.

    Everyday Katie amazes us. She is SO independent, yet SO mindful of the house rules. We too would give ANYTHING to spend just a moment inside her head. : )


  11. Absolutely, we know everything humans know...and a lot more than some humans will ever know!

  12. They definitely know the difference between right and wrong, but what that looks like is probably vastly different than how we as humans think of right and wrong. What a fascinating topic!

    Thanks for another great post, Julia! :)

  13. If Right is GOOD and Wrong is Bad... no matter how we learn the difference... And we do NOT do any Wrong/Bad thingys.. I guess you could say we KNOW the difference. Very Interesting.

  14. Wrong, schmong. I do what I want. Them's my morals for ya.

  15. Very interesting topic that I am not sure we will ever have a conclusive answer on. I agree that cats seem to have more of an implied interpretation of what is “right and wrong” in their own world – as in when a cat knows it should not infringe upon another cats feeding dish or spot on the couch. There will be consequences. I think they learn what WE perceive as right and wrong when we teach them not to jump on the counters (which, in my case, I have done a very poor job of) but not because they understand they are getting germs and fur on the counter.

    My cat Zee was known to get many a “time-out” when he was younger and we would send him to the bedroom when he was getting too aggressive with the other cats. There were times he literally went to the bedroom on his own BEFORE we scolded him, because he truly seemed to understand he was crossing a line he was not supposed to… a lot to think about for sure!

  16. I am sure the cats and the dogs know what we think is right and wrong. They are all so very smart!!! Most smarter the I!!!
    Happy Easter to you and your family!!

  17. I think that the feeling of complex emotions and the knowledge of right and wrong are two separate entities. My dog knows the rules, and feels guilty when he breaks them--not because he knows what he did was "wrong," but because he knows what he did is against what I want.

  18. Considering the fact that I hear more confessions from humans than from animals, I know the answer to the right and wrong question...I think. :)

    Very thought-provoking. Mom Julie only allows us on one section of the counter, way at the end where I get my wet food. If I go by the sinks which are the boundary, she pitches some crazy-woman fit and it's just not worth it. I think cats know right from wrong, we just forget.
    Dogs, too.

    Happy Easter, dear friends!

    Tom xx

  19. Such an interesting topic. I totally agree with Glogirly. Austin knows what I do not allow him to do and by and large abides by it, but I think it's more to do with obeying his mum than knowing what is right and wrong!

  20. I think our pets know "the rules" of the house but their morality may not be what ours is but that is OK too - Nature is set up to run perfectly. Humans are the ones who mess things up!

  21. know the difference they don't care.. Our Mandy lies on the ironing board and won't let me work, jumps in the laundry basket and sleeps,she has just jumped on a shelf and knocked a clock down, she is hiding under the sofa but that won't last long but we love her


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