In some ways, we could look upon the life of a cat and be jealous. A life full of loving attention, of warm beds and constant naps, there is something to be envied in the cat’s life. The cat needn’t fend for itself, if she’s indoors, she has everything she needs in an instant. In addition, the cat isn’t responsible for anything, it can do what it pleases with a kind of total autonomy, and at the same time we will love the cat precisely for this kind of behavior.
Yet, even if given the opportunity, most of us would become a cat - rather than stay a human. Why? Besides the natural resistance to change, cat life would take from us many of the aspects of life that we hold most precious. Cats might be said to have relationships, but nothing like the depth and meaning of the relationships that we can have as humans. Cats might have activities that are exciting and engaging, but nothing life the kind of meaningful and creative engagement that we have as humans. Cats might even be said to have a free will and choice, but we might assume it be far inferior to our own human volition.
My friends often joke that my cat is “the cat of discontent.” Whenever I am reading, talking on the phone, or doing anything else of which she is not capable, she meows a meow that seems to be both annoyed and frustrated. Maybe this is because she wants to go outside (which she decides against at the last minute), or because she is hungry (though she is well fed, believe me), but nothing satisfies her - it always appears to us as though she wants something more than cat life can provide her.
It makes me think of the John Stuart Mill quote:
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."
I can’t read my cat’s mind so I’m unaware of whether or not she’d like to be a human (the concept may be too large, as her cerebral cortex is approximately 83 cm² whereas the human brain has a surface area of about 2500 cm²), but I am nearly certain that if I - or you - were to become a cat, we’d pretty swiftly want to shift back to human form.
But why? Lounging all day, being fed on time, getting all the attention in the world and chasing mice doesn’t really seem all that bad, does it? I suppose there is the issue of the average cat lifespan being 1/7th of that of humans. But even if cat’s lived ten times longer than humans, I’d guess that most humans - even those in deep depression or who suffer from extreme anxiety, grief, etc... - wouldn’t dare exchange their life for the life of a feline.
Mill’s argument would most likely be that the complexity of adult human life more than makes up for the relatively empty pleasures of being a pig (which we might assume are similar to those of a cat, only with more mud). Hence, even a sad Socrates could make sense of his life, have some semblance of autonomy to change it, and some capacity to still pursue meaning in life beside his sad condition (such as bringing the youth of Athens to question their dogmatic beliefs). The pig, no matter at what level of happiness, is incapable of this attainment of “meaning,” outside the immediate pleasures of pig-ness (which again, involve lots of food and mud).
Mill would also likely argue that a pig is incapable of experiencing (or indeed even registering) higher gradations of pleasure, such as that of art, music, or intellectual activity. Most of us intuitively follow this logic, and though the technology to “swap” our life with cat-life is not in place yet today, I would guess that a massive majority of people would choose to remain... well... people - with all the richness that “people-ness” entails above the life of a pig or cat.
It would seem logical, then, that if a cat were given the opportunity to live as a human being for long enough to learn language, build relationships, and learn to paint -that it, too might choose to remain a human - rather than sacrifice this new richness for cat life again.
If we agree with Mill on this account, it appears as though we must consider another possibility. We must consider the fact that our experience exists on a “gradation of richness” with that of cats, with human life holding a significantly higher semblance of complexity and depth. Along this gradation, we might presume a mouse’s life to involve less richness than a cat’s, and a wasps life less richness than a mouse. We might even presume that an animal like a dolphin or an ape would have more richness and depth in it’s experience than a cat.
If we side with Mill, it seems that we have to come to the conclusion that human life at least has a gradation within it - for Mill says “...better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” For him, the richness of human life varies among it’s ranks, with the self-knowing and wise being capable of deeper pleasures and greater range of expression than the foolish and ignorant.
Could we be so bold, then, to presume that wise human life is the highest possible point on this gradation? If there was a way for a human being to double his intelligence, enhance his creative senses, and gain a greater physical mastery by the ability to fly or leap tall buildings - would this life not be richer than human life at present?
What if this “enhanced” human being was capable of appreciating senses that we humans have positively no access to? Maybe this would involve the ability to see infrared light, or to sense the electrical pulses of living creatures. Once more, maybe these electrical pulses could be interpreted as a new kind of beauty and joy, much as we enjoy music. This enhanced and super-intelligent person might learn multiple languages at once, master many bodies of knowledge at once, and have a better rounded moral sentiment and sense than the population of the un-enhanced.
Just we might presume to prefer rat life, just as we might presume a rat to prefer cat life, and just as we might presume a cat to prefer human life, can we no logically extend this gradation of richness beyond present humanity? It would seem terrible hubris to believe that there is and could be nothing further down the gradation of experiential depth and “higher pleasures.” Just as I jokingly state that my cat as “the cat of discontent” - who seems to want more than cat-life can provide for her - I think that almost all of us know humans who want “more,” as well.
If we were “enhanced” to learn faster, to reason more keenly, to write, paint, or play more creatively, would we not yearn to remain in this “enhanced” state - and to avoid our previous and less-rich existence? My guess is that we would aim to remain enhanced. Our resistance to enhancement would likely come only if we had never experienced, only before we could ever image things getting better than they already are. Like the cat-turned-human, we could have no idea of any kind of better world, and therefor would likely resist the idea of going beyond our present capacities or experience. If “enhancement” could essentially ensure a happier day to day experience, and all the capacity in the world to develop new skills and develop more range of complex pleasures than present humanity is capable of - it would seem as though one try of this new experience would convince us.
And though the technology is not yet here, there’s only one way to find out... If we agree with Mill in sad human life being better than happy cat-life, I propose that much of the resistance to the “upgrading” of our own condition and faculties stems from fear of uncertainty, or even unwillingness to look the issue in the eye.
Though enhancement needn’t be best for everyone, the arguments for it being a potentially better condition are not to be sloughed off. In an age where technology is “rounding the bend” in nanotechnology, biotechnology, brain-machine interface, and more, it might make more sense to hold these conversations about ethical and social implications now, rather than later.
I may not be a person of discontent, but if I give enhancement a try, I can at least give my cat some perspective on his ambition to be human.