We tend to think in terms of utility – we do it to landscapes, creatures and other humans. We ascribe virtue to anything that serves us, and label as useless anything that does not. Bees are industrious and virtuous because we like them as pollinators and take their honey. No one cares how busy wasps might be because we don’t think they help us, and therefore they are not virtuous and industrious, they are a bloody nuisance.
Similar things happen with cats and dogs. Humans have a long history of working with dogs. Even when we aren’t getting them to specifically work for us, they do what we tell them. They may defend our persons and property from attack. We can train them to tolerate considerable abuse and still treat us with love in return for it. Therefore dogs are good and virtuous. Cats, on the other hand, are lazy. We’ve worked with them because their eating mice can be useful, but they don’t do it on command and if you abuse a cat, it will leave. They are not team players, they do not take orders and they aren’t that interested in keeping us happy.
Why do so many of us choose to live with cats, if cats are selfish, ungrateful bastards? But here’s the thing – cats aren’t inherently mean or unpleasant, but they have boundaries. They don’t tend to bestow affection on total strangers, they expect to be treated well, and if they are happy, they express that by being pleased to see you, purring, making body contact and so forth.
Cats do not work. There is no way to train them up as beasts of burden or doers of jobs. Being small, lithe and pointy makes non-cooperation easy for them. A cat has no interest in doing anything unnecessary, anything that is not pleasing to it. Find a warm place, stretch out or curl up. Enjoy. Eat. Play with things, stare out of windows. Sing. Cats tend to have simple, uncluttered lives, and to be happy.
If we stopped measuring virtue in terms of workishness and use to humans, and started looking at happiness in other creatures, our whole view would change. We’d notice how the busy bees rapidly work themselves to death. We’d notice that cats tend to be enormously happy, and if they aren’t, they leave if they possibly can. It’s not an accident that we use the term ‘fat cat’ to describe a big company boss with a lot of wealth. However, actual cats, fat and otherwise, own nothing. Yes, they quietly take advantage of our homes, but I’ve met plenty of feral cats along the way, and they know how to find the warm spots and they make the time to sunbathe. Being a cat is a way of life that does not depend on human benevolence.
Most mammals, left to their own devices, try to rest, sleep, sunbathe and play as much as they can, and only do what’s necessary. The ‘hives of industry’ involve insects – ants and bees especially. We’re mammals. Why have we decided it is virtuous to emulate insects, and lazy to live like a mammal?