• We Can Learn From Our Pets

    Over recent months, I have, for my sins, been thinking about, and trying to write, a book that is intended to answer the question of how we might arrive at a system of values that would guide us as to how we should treat each other.

    My tentative conclusion so far is that, in conducting such an inquiry, and in the absence of any external authority telling us what to do, we should draw on our own reasoning ability, our own accumulated knowledge as to how our world works, and our own experience as to what is most likely to provide us, as individuals, with fulfilling lives, and to give us – as a society and as a species – the best chance of survival.

    There are many sources of experience and inspiration that might help us in such a quest and that will allow us to identify those behaviours that we can approve and that will make us feel better. One such experience, and one that many of us will have shared, is the experience of having a pet.

    My wife and I have long been dog-lovers. Our little West Highland White Terrier, Brodie, has now been with us for a year – and he has been a major influence on, and factor in, our lives over that period.

    He was born on a farm, and into a family with small children. He was, accordingly, cosseted and fussed from the moment he was born, and grew up to expect that he would be well treated.

    It is that early experience of being loved and cherished that explains, we think, his sweet temperament – and, in the whole of his life so far, he has continued to experience nothing but love and kindness.

    As a result, he likes everybody, and expects that everybody will like him. He approaches everyone with a wagging tail, and everyone responds to him with pleasure and warmth. He has created a self-fulfilling virtuous circle for himself – because he has been kindly treated, and expects to be so, he responds to people with pleasure and affection, and when people recognise that this is what he expects in return, they respond accordingly.

    My wife and I are the beneficiaries of this virtuous circle. We are rewarded with the constant pleasure and enjoyment of our little dog’s companionship, affection and eagerness to please. He has repaid us many times over for the care we lavish on him.

    As I reflect on this interaction with our dear little friend and companion, I cannot help but wonder whether it could form a kind of blueprint for our relationships more generally. If we can establish such a mutually beneficial interaction with another sentient (though, in this case, non-human) being, why could those behaviours not be similarly rewarding when applied to inter-human contacts?

    We all know and recognise the pleasure that acts of kindness can bring us – when we receive kindness, offer it ourselves to others and observe it in others. And it is not just as individuals that we derive these benefits; the society in which we live and of which we are a part is also healthier, and functions better and more harmoniously – and our chances of survival as a species are also enhanced, as are those of our planet.

    It may be that I am, in setting up our little dog as an exemplar of good behaviour, asking Brodie to bear too heavy a burden. Perhaps it would be better to leave him in his own happy little world. But why should we humans be so arrogant as to assume that we can learn nothing from other species? And why should we be reluctant to conclude that love, affection and kindness, wherever they may be found, are the building blocks of a society that functions well and that allows us all to make the most of our lives?

    Bryan Gould
    11 February 2020

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