An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 13 | Summary



Malthus's critique of Godwin continues. He now charges Godwin with "considering man too much in the light of a being merely rational." In other words, Malthus finds Godwin liable to overemphasize the role of reason in human behavior, while neglecting the role of emotion or impulse. Consequently, Godwin's predictions concerning society's future are doomed to be overly simplistic. In ordinary life, Malthus points out, people often find "the decision of the compound being is different from the conviction of the rational being." That is, people don't always act on the basis of their rational beliefs but are easily tempted to give in to their feelings and instincts.

As an example of how Godwin's assumptions undermine his argument, Malthus considers Godwin's views on punishment. For Godwin, any punishment other than temporary restraint (e.g., jail) is barbaric and immoral. Malthus counters that in the real world, punishment often deters crime by leading people to fear the consequences of their actions. If people were perfectly rational, they would never consider committing murder in the first place. People, however, are not "merely rational" beings, and a fear of punishment serves to counterbalance the strong emotions that might motivate them to kill. The criminal justice system, Malthus admits, is not perfect: sometimes it is too cruel, sometimes too lenient. Still, he maintains, it is better to have an imperfect system of laws than none at all.

Malthus closes the chapter with a final remark on the relationship between mind and body. He invites the reader to assume for a moment that the "pleasures of intellect" really are superior to those of "sense," as Godwin maintains. How, he asks, would one go about proving this? If, for instance, a man loves partying but finds books boring, how could one convince him he is missing out on a rich intellectual life? Only personal experience, Malthus asserts, can lead a person to understand the richness of intellectual pleasures.


Here, as in earlier chapters, Malthus has one overriding critique of Godwin: his theories are not in touch with reality. On a few points, Malthus agrees with Godwin's views as expressed in Political Justice (1793) and The Enquirer (1797). For the most part, however, Godwin's opinions and speculations get sorted into two piles: those contradicted by experience and those impossible to prove. In both cases, Malthus is drawing on his own earlier principle that to be "just" (i.e., accurate), a theory must stand up to empirical reality.

Godwin's theories on the perfectibility of humankind (Chapters 11 and 12) fall mainly into the "impossible to prove" category. They rely on the assumption that human nature—or the physical world, or both—will change in some fundamental way in the future, breaking with present-day experience. For Malthus, the problem here is the lack of evidence that any such change is going to take place. Humankind, he concedes, has grown more knowledgeable, but not necessarily more intelligent; more educated, but not necessarily more rational. Before one can claim people are slowly turning into ostriches, he quips, one needs some evidence of feathers, beaks, and claws.

Godwin's views on punishment, on the other hand, are criticized by Malthus as ignoring everyday experience. People are not punished to convince them to change their ways—as Godwin maintains—but to serve as a deterrent to others. If one could talk people out of crime by appealing to their reason, prisons would not be necessary. But daily experience, for Malthus, is sufficient to prove people are not rational, at least behaviorally speaking. Reading these chapters, one gets a sense of Malthus as a sober—if reluctant—realist who sometimes loses patience with Godwin's optimism. The phrases he quotes back at Godwin—"gorgeous palaces' of happiness" and "solemn temples of truth and virtue"—have more than a tinge of sarcasm.

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