An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus begins by praising Godwin's "ingenious and able work on political justice," complimenting both its style and its contents. He admits he wishes to believe in Godwin's vision of a future where all are happy and true political equality is established. He argues, however, that the principle of population fatally undermines Godwin's arguments. While Godwin fixates on human institutions—particularly political ones—as the source of misery, Malthus contends the problem is more fundamental.

To show this, Malthus proposes a thought experiment. Imagine "all the causes of misery and vice" are removed from Great Britain. Everyone is happy and healthy, there is no war or political intrigue, and the goods of society are distributed according to people's needs. Marriage, which Godwin views as "a fraud and a monopoly," would be abolished. Instead, everyone would take part communally in looking after the children. If all this happened, Malthus says, the population would skyrocket, doubling in 25 years or less. Even if everyone devoted themselves to farming and adopted a vegetarian diet to conserve arable land, population would rise to match the food supply. The more abundant the food supply, the more rapidly population would increase. Faced with insufficient food to raise their children, everyone—no matter how virtuous at first—would descend back into selfishness and dishonesty. In an attempt to regulate this chaos, the oppressive laws that Godwin hates would soon be reestablished. Private property—and the laws protecting it—would almost certainly reemerge.

Malthus then asks what would become of "the commerce between the sexes" (i.e., procreation). Marriage and inheritance customs would likewise make a comeback because people would be unable to look after others' children. Once property and marriage were reestablished, economic inequality would inevitably follow. Thus, Malthus concludes, even an ideal society would quickly devolve into one divided along class lines and be motivated mainly by "self-love."

Analysis

Throughout the Essay, Malthus makes it clear he takes no pleasure in reporting his bleak predictions for the fate of humanity. He would rather believe in the rosier version of the future offered up by Godwin, de Caritat, and others. Despite this disclaimer, Malthus has often been popularly misconstrued as a Scrooge-like figure who heartlessly advocates letting the poor starve. In fact, Malthus suggests many of the poor will starve (or barely subsist) regardless of the amount of money spent to relieve poverty directly. One of Malthus's aims in later versions of the Essay is to establish, as clearly as he can, the basis of this opinion.

Malthus would have encountered the optimistic beliefs of Godwin and de Caritat not just in writing, but closer to home. His father, Daniel Malthus, was a keen reader of Rousseau and a strong believer in human perfectibility. Malthus the younger, however, found the notion of perfectibility harder to accept, and the intellectual disagreements between the two men became one source of the Essay. John Avery describes these father-and-son conversations in Progress, Poverty and Population: Re-reading Condorcet, Godwin and Malthus (2014): "As Daniel Malthus talked ... of human progress ... Robert's mind turned to the imbalance between births and deaths." The young Malthus "pointed out to his father that no matter what benefits science might be able to confer, they would soon be eaten up by population growth."

In describing the poor as existing on "the exact borderline between survival and famine" (Avery's phrase), Malthus was drawing on his experiences as an Anglican priest. The poor in his parish seemed to be passed over by the technological improvements that had made life easier for the rich and the middle classes. Others might prosper, but the poorest of the poor would be left with "the precise minimum required for life." Malthus saw no reason to suppose this state of affairs would change in future years.

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