An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter continues Malthus's lengthy criticism of Godwin. He opens by quoting Godwin's "five propositions" concerning political truth:

  1. Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error.
  2. Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated.
  3. Truth is omnipotent.
  4. The vices and moral weakness of man are not invincible.
  5. Man is perfectible, or in other words, susceptible to perpetual improvement.

Propositions 1 and 2, Malthus says, are designed to prove proposition 3. Then, by comparing the omnipotence of truth (3) with the limited power of vice (4), Godwin arrives at the conclusion that truth will triumph. For Malthus, unsurprisingly, there are a few problems with this reasoning. For one thing, he says, proposition 2 is by no means clear enough to accept as a given; in many cases, it is doubtful whether truth can be "communicated" effectively enough to change a person's mind, let alone change their behavior. Moreover, proposition 5 seems to include an assumption about the limits (or lack of limits) of human potential. Malthus has critiqued this assumption separately in Chapter 9.

"The vices and moral weakness of man," Malthus proposes, "can never be wholly overcome in this world." A person's morality is formed in part by their impressions of the outside world. Thus, as long as "evils" such as poverty and inequality persist in the world, some people will be tempted to behave immorally. For everyone to be virtuous in an imperfect world, Malthus says, is as likely as for a pair of dice to show sixes 100 times in a row. The presence of a few virtuous people is not enough to substantially affect the behavior of the "mass" of humanity. At this point, Malthus has cast sufficient doubt on Godwin's political philosophy that he is willing to reject Godwin's predictions wholesale.

Analysis

In considering Godwin's propositions, Malthus draws on the vocabulary of syllogistic logic, a system of reasoning widely taught in early modern universities. In this system, logical arguments are built up in three-part statements called syllogisms. The first two sentences are called the major and minor premises; the last one is called the conclusion or consequent. The classic example is:

Socrates is a man. (major premise)
All men are mortal. (minor premise)
Socrates is mortal. (conclusion)

Using this vocabulary, Malthus's critique of Godwin can be examined a little more closely. When he says, "The major may be allowed and the minor denied" in reference to statements 1–3, he means: One can accept that "sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error," while denying that "sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated."

If one accepts premise (1) but denies premise (2), then one can no longer reach conclusion (3). This doesn't mean statement (3) is false, although Malthus certainly seems to think so; it just means that one cannot use statements (1, 2) as support for (3) anymore. There might be some other way to reach the same conclusion, but Godwin doesn't provide it in the passage Malthus cites.

The criticism in this chapter should not, however, be mistaken for mere logic-chopping: in Malthus's eyes, the flaws in Godwin's theories extend far beyond dubious syllogisms. He accepts, as Godwin does, that "a variety of bad men" will naturally arise in the world under the pressures of poverty, inequality, and economic competition. However, he rejects Godwin's belief that these circumstances can be escaped, leading to a world in which there are no evil influences and therefore no "bad men." For Malthus, misery and vice act like a kind of tether, keeping the human condition from ever advancing beyond the point at which evil temptations arise.

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