“If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Wittgenstein
For the second night in a row, my dog, restless from storms, has woken me up. Her routine involves walking on my sternum and neck, and panting midnight dog breath onto my innocent face until I escort her downstairs for an interlude of Netflix and snuggling. The next day, when I’m wrecked from spotty sleep and struggling to get ready for work, the dog is unapologetic. As far as I can tell, there is no twinge of sympathy or speck of regret in those limpid bug-eyes.
It’s pretty much the same self-centered story with my cat, who has, for twelve years, scrupulously maintained a commitment to vomit quickly, and with indifference, on every new rug I acquire. And how many times have I caught him callously toying with field mice or stepped in the bloody remains of his cruel sport? Nor does he seem to notice my yelps of pain when he suddenly leaps from my arms to the chair, gouging me with his wicked hind paws. It’s a lack of empathy that would be remarkable if it were not so consistent.
“Animals are like this,” we usually think, especially cats, and it does seem that they don’t meditate much on how their behavior impacts others. In fact, part of what has long been thought to distinguish them from us is their incapacity for moral deliberation or regret. But it’s a gross oversimplification, given the examples of animals exhibiting what, in human terms, seem like morally relevant emotions. Besides, there are some adult humans who occupy a zone of blithe disregard for others that we usually associate primarily with animals, and toddlers.
I haven’t always appreciated how similar some narcissistic adult humans are to animals with whom I coexist relatively peacefully. My dog doesn’t notice or care about the dark circles under my eyes and my cat has little respect for my comfort or property. But I know, of course, that it doesn’t make sense to describe them as evil, or even as inconsiderate, because this happens to be the kind of beings that they are. And, critically, much about their mental workings are unavailable to me so my musings about their motives is mostly speculation in any case. Sure, I can make inferences based on their behavioral clues and project my story onto them, but that’s about as close as I can get.
Similarly, I find it helpful to assume that some emotionally solipsistic people live in a world in which the subjectivities of other people don’t fully exist, rather than getting repeatedly riled up about how “rude” or “inconsiderate” they are. After all, the evidence of their words and behavior suggests that the immediacy of their egocentric need simply eclipses all else, rendering it insignificant, if not invisible. Though the motives of such humans may be more comprehensible than those of animals, they’re probably more opaque than we like to admit. So unless one is a psychologist, or simply enjoys exploring the mental landscape of such folks, it might be wise to stop projecting our own mental frameworks onto these creatures simply because they happen to look so much more like us than our cats and dogs.
Comparing inscrutable humans to mysterious non-humans this way allows me to back away a bit from moral judgment and move, instead, toward curiosity and skillful response. While I don’t dispute that many obsessively self-regarding folks could, and therefore, should, strive to treat others better, I have become bored speculating about the supposed intricacies of their mental workings. And in a weird way I actually feel like I am being more respectful to them, when I accept that they, like my cat and dog, exist on their own terms and not on mine, whether I like it or not. Besides, abandoning the habit of ruminating about the motives of narcissistic others — be they human or non-human animals — allows me to better focus on the pragmatic path. That is, to avoid being scratched or bitten by them.