Does Your Pet Have a Mind?

Can your furry friend think and feel?

Posted Mar 22, 2016

The fastest animal in the world is the peregrine falcon, the biggest is the blue whale, and the longest-lived is tortoise.  But what animal is the smartest? 

Chimpanzees may be our closest relatives, crows may understand basic physics and parrots may be able to learn thousands of words, but most people have an obvious answer about world’s smartest animal—their pet.  If you own a dog or cat, you likely see it as capable of feeling love, planning mischief, experiencing shame, and even reading your mind.  In fact, you likely see it as much smarter than most of your co-workers.  But are these perceptions warranted?  Does your pet have a mind?

Listafterlist, CC reuse licence
Source: Listafterlist, CC reuse licence

It’s true that cats are amazing self-sufficient, and dogs are particularly good at understanding the behavior of humans.  For example, when people point at food on the floor, dogs almost always understand what’s going on, whereas chimpanzees miss the meaning of this simple gesture.  But is following a finger sufficient for having a mind? 

The entire field of psychology was once divided over the question of animal minds.  Some sided with the philosopher Descartes, who argued that animals were merely furry robots that linked stimulus to response.  Others—including the first woman to earn a psychology PhD—argued that animals had legitimate conscious experiences such as thoughts and feelings.  Which side was correct proved surprisingly difficult to settle.

Psychologists have devised ingenious tests of mental abilities, but these leave open questions of conscious experience.  When a rat solves a maze is it thinking to itself as it goes, or is it propelled on by instinct and unconscious motor programs?  We can never know for certain because the minds of other entities are ultimately inaccessible, including those of rats, cats and dogs—and even humans.

You may know exactly what it feels like to eat an orange or have an orgasm, but do these feel the same to other people?  Perhaps my yellow looks like your blue, and chocolate tastes entirely differently to me.   Because you can never directly experience the mind of another, you are left guessing about whether they exist. 

The inaccessibility of other minds isn’t a big problem with other people, as you can be reasonably certain your spouse has a mind.  However, other minds, such as animals minds, are much more cryptic, and are therefore largely a matter of perception. 

As we explore in our new book “The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why it Matters,” (out today!) mind perception leaves room for a lot of debate, explaining why you are convinced that your pet is a genius, while your neighbor sees only a biological machine for converting kibble into poop. It can explain why people dress up their dog for holidays, and why they leave the television on for our cats while at work.

Although questions of mind perception can be funny, they are often deadly serious.  We determine questions of morality on the basis of mind, and so whether animals have minds determines whether they can be eaten or legally beaten.  It is no coincidence that vegetarians see more mind in all animals.  Likewise, omnivores are willing to slaughter “dumb” animals like cows, but not “smart” animals like chimpanzees—who are sometimes granted basic human rights.  Of course, chimpanzees likely do have a richer inner life than cows, but pigs are likely smarter than baby seals—and yet we eat pigs with impunity and cry murder when seals are clubbed.

That minds are perceived can lead to striking reversals between objective mental capacities and allocations of human compassion. How else are we to make sense of someone who buys their dog organic food but ignores the pleas of a hungry homeless women?  Mind perception is reason why the death of Cecil the lion generated more of an outcry than the Syrian refugee crisis.  Of course, animals do deserve compassion, but strangely seem to be our first moral priority.  In times of flood, it often seems that we care more about dogs trapped on roofs than addressing human misery.

Questions of mind are difficult in animals but are even more challenging in human cases.  Does an ailing parent with Alzheimers still have a mind?  What about a 12-week-old fetus?  Or a mentally-challenged inmate on death row?  How you answer these questions determines your deepest moral judgments about institutionalization, abortion and capital punishment.  Consider the case of Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old who was pronounced brain dead after botched sleep apnea surgery.   Her parents still saw her as having a mind—that she was somehow “still in there”—but doctors disagreed.  Who is right determines whether removing Jahi from life support is sensible or murderous.

These weighty questions of life and death may seem a long way from the question of whether your pet can feel embarrassment, but they are not.  Both depend on the processes mind perception, which is a powerful driver of moral behavior but is often disconnected from reality.  Just something to think about next time you cuddle your cat while ignoring television commercials about starving children.