Wonderful, unvirtuous creatures

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?

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Wonderful, unvirtuous creatures

  • Redfaery

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SAYING THIS. I am a cat lover, and I’ve noticed a lot of the dislike – vitriol even – that gets directed at cats (and people who prefer cats to dogs) is underlain with really problematic attitudes. Not just ableism, but misogyny too. The “crazy cat lady” stereotype, f’ex.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I like dogs, but I have only owned one as a kid. Nice but for too slave like and too dependent for me Cats I have had many starting with the one that tipped over my parakeet cage and ate my pet bird. I tied him in a box to punish him. That did not last long, and he stayed till he died of old age. After that there have been a great many cats. All which have died of old age unless they disappeared, one of them, of got sick and had to be put down, also just one. Now as I am soon to be seventy, I will probably get older cats Us old guys need to stick together, and they are the last ones to get adopted.

  • Éilis Niamh

    Interesting. I don’t actually use the word virtue in the sense you are using it here. You seem to have a more Humean conception on which virtue is defined as useful and agreeable. I am much more Aristotelian, and when I speak of a virtue, I mean a deep-seated character trait such as courage, honesty, generosity, justice and the like. As I would use the term, virtue is useful, not in that it derives immediate utility for you, but insofar as it allows you to respond with excellence to the circumstances of your life. You can’t achieve happiness through circumstances, which change like the seasons, but you do have control over the kind of person you want to be and the kind of character you aspire to have. Dogs, cats, and insects, insofar as it would make any sense to say they were virtuous, would be virtuous due to some excellence or authentic expression of who they are, not what they can do for others. I am just providing a different point of view.

  • Éilis Niamh

    I completely agree with you about cats. I love them! And we should be more like them and quit the mad rush through life for success poorly defined. We will work ourselves to death, too, if we don’t.

    If people think it is virtuous to do things that go against our nature as living creatures or which harm ourselves or others, then they are using the term rather ignorantly and mistakenly. It doesn’t have to be a dilemma. Virtue benefits the person who possesses it, at the very least. Insane working conditions are culturally sanctioned, deemed appropriate, useful for a paradigm that serves a few at the expense of the many, and aren’t virtuous at all! In fact they are very, very vicious. It’s just that, to serve its ends, the popular culture dismisses any definition contrary to its agenda and then redefines terms like virtue very conveniently to suit itself. I say, it’s time we respond to all that with an emphatic “NO” and then follow through and live a different, healthier story. To do that well requires virtues of character. Nimue Brown posted: “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”

  • spirited13

    Thanks Nimue….I enjoyed what you had to say. I always tell my clients that if they are indeed stressed out to the max, that they should take time off and spend it watching and doing everything a cat does! I know they do not do this, but the point is that a happy cat can be peaceful, grateful and a real presence in your life. If we try to emulate them, we would find ourselves not rushing so much, napping more and all in all, enjoying the whole day! With ease! At least we can try to enjoy our days much less stressed, can’t we? hugs and Blessings, Barbara xxxxx

  • locksley2010

    This made me laugh and think of my own cat who was put down earlier this year. She would have approved of your theory. 😊

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