A Dog’s Life


I’ve just finished ‘In Defence of Dogs’, a fascinating book on the evolution and psychology of our four-legged friends. Packed with insights, perhaps the most important is: they’re not half as complicated as we think they are.

That’s not to say dogs aren’t smart. But they proceed by ‘associative learning’ – always assume result b) follows directly from cause a) i.e. that which immediately preceded it.

Dogs, it seems, have no real capacity for introspection or to place events in the past – even the comparatively recent past. So shouting at them when they finally come back – or when you come back home and they’ve made a mess – just confuses them.

In the dogs head it’s “Smell x, smell y, hear shout from owner, bark, sniff, run around, bark, wag, return to owner – get shouted at.” The only associative learning possible from this is ‘Sometimes when I return to my owner I get shouted at.’

Dog owners project the full gamut of human emotions onto their dogs – guilt first and foremost. I did, Charles Darwin did, every dog owner does. But in fact there is no evidence dogs can feel guilt or can learn from it.

But they are hugely sensitive to humans and very attuned to us. So they can certainly tell when we’re not happy with them. What they can’t tell is why, unless it’s for the very last thing they did.

The capacity to appear ‘smart ‘ whilst lacking complex cognition is not a bad thing to have in mind for young kids too. We easily assume kids have fully featured introspection, a ‘theory of mind’ and the ability to think ahead. But a focus on the immediate and simple ‘associative learning’ is undoubtedly a big part of how kids are too.

My supersmart 8 year old daughter – on getting out of the bath last week – said: “Daddy, it seems to me that other people aren’t always thinking the same things that I am thinking.” “Indeed.” I said. “So how can I tell what other people are thinking” she asked? “That, my love”, I replied ruefully, “is the entire complexity of human life.”

On one level, it’s a bit sad to learn dogs can’t do complex emotions. It makes them seem a bit simple. But there is overwhelming evidence that dogs can – and do – do ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and most of all ‘love’.

And they reserve their deepest, most unconditional love for us – humans of all shapes and sizes, personalities and temperaments, faults and failings – their owners.

It’s a dogs life being scolded for stuff you can’t remember or understand. But what ‘In Defence of Dogs’ establishes beyond doubt is; we towering two-legged creatures are the centre of their world. We should aim to love them as much as they love us.

Cathedral or Cave

I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would be more cave. Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs.

I’ve been toying with Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed in the real world or forcibly turned in. For him, we create a complex inner life in proportion to the scale of our drive we cannot express externally.

It’s an interesting thought. Complex interesting people tend to have a good deal of both – rich inner lives and fulfilling outer ones. But not always. Nietzsche credits civilisation with curbing the capacity to express our animal instincts externally – driving them inwards. This unexpressed energy drives our inner lives – our conscience, guilt and creativity.

I think regularly about the balance of inner and external. I don’t feel I have the ‘will to power’ for a full ‘Cathedral’ in the external world. Too much competition, conflict, one-upmanship and strife in seeking grandeur. I fear I’d lose my health, precious time with my family and my happiness if I allowed a ‘grand projet’ or personal aggrandisement to consume me.

Talking to a friend – who is a decade older than me – this week, I felt a bit guilty. He has real fire in his belly for systemic reform, transformational change and the great debates of public policy. I said I’m just not attracted to any of that right now.

We talked about using your talents and our responsibility to improve the lot of others. He started his career as a lone residential social worker, on a tough housing estate. Beer bottles bounced off the cage that surrounded his outpost all night. That’s where his fire still comes from. It drives him to want to improve the scaffolding and superstructure of the nation’s health and social care system.

I don’t have that. I’m more a family chapel with a good sized intellectual cellar. My projects are more local and small scale – my family, the people around me. But never say never. The world is an unpredictable place. Gaudi started with lampposts and squat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.


I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend the other day. Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis and perished for it in a concentration camp. He is celebrated (pictured on the right) as a 20th Century martyr in Westmister Abbey.

A Christian theologian and a man of obvious moral courage, Bonhoeffer argued – like Kierkegaard before him – for a more direct spiritual connection with God. One mediated by fewer trappings of religion.

He believed we have a deep moral sense, beyond the reach of rational thought which is both our guide and goad. He said our conscience comes from a “depth which lies beyond a man’s own will and his own reason and it makes itself heard as the call of human existence to unity with itself.”

For Bonhoeffer, guilt is a warning about our ‘doings’ conflicting with our ‘being’. A guilty conscience arises when we lose the unity – what some people call ‘congruence’. Our conscience is, thus, like an alarm bell, warning us of the risk of damage to ourselves.

I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that conscience lies beyond the ‘event horizon’ of thought and will. I’m more with Aristotle that we simply ‘are what we repeatedly do’. For me, reason, will, our actions and character all come together in an intertwined person. But the Bonhoeffer quote I read out today is still a powerful one:

The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand moral decisions despite the likelihood of adverse consequences.

Bonhoeffer found himself up against truly overwhelming forces and a tragically inescapable situation – it cost him his life. He took moral decisions despite the likelihood, entirely realised, of very adverse consequences. Whether he found it in faith or forged it through reason, that is moral courage.

For Aristotle, courage is the ‘mean’ between confidence and fear. To respond to ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ with the courage of Bonhoeffer requires a strength built within – the confidence in the importance of ‘unity with oneself’ overcoming the fear of ‘adverse consequences’ and considering them a price worth paying.

But what’s the practical day to day application here? Like the other 20th century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer faced extraordinary challenges. History has judged him simply and kindly. Most of us live with less extreme, more attritional moral challenges and choices – do I say something or keep quiet, do I stand up for something or let it go, do I join in talking someone down or keep my mouth shut. And implicit in Bonhoeffer’s words are the fact that others won’t always understand and won’t always judge you kindly.

The thought that conscience is a warning that expedient ‘doings’ might undermine my ‘being’ is a valuable one. It’s less about carrying guilt and more about making choices. It achieves some of what Bonhoeffer would no doubt have wished for us; a simple internaliseable test of our actions.

For me, I think it may be this simple: if I can look others in the eye and myself in the mirror – even amidst the adverse consequences of inescapable situations – I know my ‘self’ is in ok shape. If not my ‘doings’ are damaging my ‘being’.


I was reminded of one of my own ‘mottos at work’ this week – don’t start with an apology. We often start an encounter by excusing ourselves for things that aren’t really our fault. That, or making an unduly self-deprecating comment. Why?

Well when it comes to a big ballsy idea you can’t beat Nietzsche. What say you to this: all our animal instincts that don’t get let out into the real world get turned inside. This is Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed externally or turned in our ourselves – often as guilt.

Nietzsche is an interesting chap. Unashamedly elitist, cultured, a fine writer. But also discomforting and highly speculative. His punt – based on no particular evidence it must be said – is that there was a time when we were cruel but cheerful. Guilt didn’t exist. Just debts to repay and retribution to enact.

Depending on whether you were owed to or in debt, you were either cheerfully duffing someone up or being duffed up. But there were no hard feelings – even if it was painful and cruel. The nobly savage, jolly, barbarian life.

This reminds me of the Viking laws someone gave me a copy of a couple of years ago:

Be direct, brave and aggressive, grab all opportunities, use varying methods of attack, be versatile and agile, attack one target at a time, don’t plan everything in detail, use top quality weapons, keep weapons in good shape, keep yourself in good shape, find good battle comrades, agree on important points, choose one chief.

Not much introspection there. Sensible organisation, plenty of ‘flow’ potential and a good deal of what we would consider cruelty. I also suspect not much guilt… And by the sounds of it a fair bit of cheerfulness.

And this is what I find interesting in Nietzsche’s thesis. The barbarism and cruelty of dominance and power led to vivid, guilt free lives – nasty brutish and short no doubt, but vivid and guilt free. For Nietzsche, guilt is simply energy we can’t expend elsewhere. So why do we all feel guilty all the time?

Because we can never do enough (Kierkegaard) if anyone could view what we’re doing as wrong then it is wrong (Kant) and even when we do do the ‘right’ things they may turn out wrong (Mill).

Nietzsche asks a perfectly good question; why do we feel so guilty for everything? These days I’m feeling less guilty about spending that energy better elsewhere.