04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should we Sacrifice Animal Welfare for Human Convenience?

On February 23rd, 2010, Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, spoke at a student debate at the Yale Political Union in favor of the resolution "Resolved: Don't Sacrifice Animal Welfare for Human Convenience." Full minutes of debate can be found at here.

Adam Stempel, a member of the Party of the Left, rebutted Mr. Pacelle:

Harming animals is not in and of itself a good, and all else being equal, you shouldn't do it. But let us not pretend that the question at hand is so easily resolved. To truly do as the affirmative tells us is a monumental undertaking, and one which goes against centuries of moral intuition. A vote in the affirmative states loudly and proudly that animals have a degree of moral worth that is if not equal then able to be compared with the moral worth of a human being.

"Human convenience" is a loaded term. I can see no clear or even blurry line between human welfare and human convenience. To avoid harming an animal, am I supposed to spend more money? How much more? Enough that it might prohibit me from getting something else I might find extremely valuable? This kind of argument goes on, but I trust the body understands this small point, even if they are not convinced. A factory farm may be a horrible place for animals, but the mass-production of meat in this way feeds an extraordinary number of people who couldn't otherwise afford the kind of massaged and grass-fed critter flesh we enjoy here at Yale.

By the way, in this argument I'm not trying to address issues of sustainability and health. I know that there are terrible problems in both cases, and to the extent that reforms of factory farms and other animal-based industries would improve human welfare in the long- or short-term, I whole-heartedly support them. But I want to emphasize that I support these reforms because they are better for humans, not because they are better for animals.

Factory farming is one of many issues where animal welfare is decreased for the sake of humans. Essentially, convenience translates into welfare, which translates into moral worth. When we evaluate how important things are, we think of it in these terms, even if subconsciously. I know at the very least that many of my colleagues on the Left do.

But moral worth implies morality. And morality is for humans.

It always has been. But aside from that and more importantly, it is designed for humans. Whether you think the moral laws on which our societies are run were a gift from God or an evolutionary device or a social contract, they always apply to humans. They serve our sense of justice and they maintain our sense of order. If done properly, a moral society will be a flourishing society. Or at least, so we tell ourselves.

But animals don't fit in. They don't contribute to society in the same way as humans, and so we haven't taken their interests very much into account when forming our cultures. This isn't because we're cruel and we've deliberately disenfranchised animals for all of time, it's just that there has never been any reason to think of other species in the same way we think of ourselves. When the vast majority of people in the world consider how to make the world better, we think of it in terms of people, not in terms of cows or porcupines or cicadas.

I really don't think it could work any other way even if we tried. Though I'm a liberal, I do believe in some basic level of human nature, and I have trouble imagining people losing sleep over the welfare of a clan of local mollusks. If mollusks seem too absurd, I have the same trouble thinking about cod, and about woodchucks. I can imagine people losing sleep over bunnies, but that's because bunnies are adorable, and if we're judging moral worth based on cuteness now I've got some problems of my own.

There are an unfathomable number of animals, and we have no reasonable metric by which to judge their moral worth. I'm willing to concede to the better informed that animals feel pain, but we didn't construct systems of morality to deal with the fact that people feel pain. I believe the purpose of morality is to help humans achieve the most just and best flourishing society, and it has to be with the welfare of people as the sole end.

Look, you shouldn't go out of your way to harm animals. If you really like some animals, as I do, or even all animals, as some here claim to, I applaud your efforts to care for them and their well-being. But when the dilemma arises of whether to improve the life of a person or the life of a bird, and I truly believe that sometimes it does, I hope that you choose people over animals. I believe that it is the moral thing to do.