Malthus, Thomas Robert (1776–1834)

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Author: Antony Flew
Editor: Donald M. Borchert
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
From: Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Vol. 5. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: February 17, 1766 in Surrey, United Kingdom
Died: December 23, 1834 in Haileybury, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Economist
Other Names: Malthus, Thomas; Malthus, Thomas R.
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Page 675


Thomas Robert Malthus, the English economist and moral philosopher, is most famous for his contributions to population studies. In his Principles of Political Economy (1820) and in his controversies with David Ricardo, Malthus seems partly to have anticipated J. M. Keynes; and Keynes himself, in his Essays in Biography, generously remarked that "if only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be today!"

Malthus's work on population is contained in two books, misleadingly presented as if they were merely different editions of one. The first, best referred to as the First Essay, is actually titled An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. The second, best thought of as the Second Essay, was, with some reserve, offered by Malthus as a much extended second edition. But it was retitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions. The First Essay is an occasional polemic against utopianism; the Second, a labored treatise full of detailed factual material. What they have in common is the same guiding and coordinating theoretical schema, although even this is in one respect importantly amended in the later book.

The fundamental principle is that unfreakish human populations possess a power of multiplying in a geometrical progression. The next step is to urge that this power always is and must be checked by countervailing forces; for, on the most optimistic supposition, means of subsistence could in the long run at best be increased only in an arithmetical progression. (The subsistence of checks could, of course, be inferred without recourse to this misleadingly arithmetized supposition, by referring directly to the fact that no human population ever does achieve its full multiplicative potential.) The questions then arise. What are these checks? what ought they to be?

Checks are classified in two different ways. First, they can be positive or preventive: the former by the time of the Second Essay being all causes of (premature) death; and the latter, correspondingly, all checks on the birth rate. The second classification is strongly normative: In the First Essay all checks must count as either misery or vice; but in the Second Essay a third option, moral restraint, is added. This is defined as "the restraint from marriage which is not followed by irregular gratifications." Malthus seems never to have entertained the possibility of restraint within marriage; and he categorically rejected any form of contraception, even within wedlock, as vice.

This scheme of ideas constituted an intellectual engine that was immensely powerful both for its primary purpose of confounding utopian optimism and for its secondary function of guiding social inquiry. We also have clear statements from both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that it was reading Malthus on population which independently led each to see the clue to the problem of the origin of species in natural selection through "a struggle for existence," a phrase used by Malthus himself. Against the utopians the argument was that our inordinate animal power of multiplication is bound—sooner or later, and usually sooner—to run up against the inexorably constricting walls of scarcity. All measures of intended amelioration which directly or indirectly encourage an increase of population that outstrips resources—and most do—will, in the not very distant end, merely multiply the number of bearers of misery and agents of vice. These harsh and gloomy conclusions were only modified, not upset, by the belated recognition of the option of moral restraint. For it was, and remains, hard to cherish high hopes from the preaching of such prudence; and in any society which did generally accept such preaching all but the richest would have to marry women nearing the evening of their reproductive powers.

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It is, therefore, not surprising that generations of idealists hoping to reshape the present sorry scheme of things nearer to their heart's desire have released torrents of argument and abuse at "Parson Malthus" and his ideas. Yet, despite the apparent implication of his system—that God has placed humankind in a situation offering little promise of secure improvement—it would be wrong to assume that Malthus as a man or as a thinker was either insensitive or harsh. Compared with the optimistic utopians of his father's reading and acquaintance he could not but appear a jarring pessimist. But this was a matter of facing what he took to be the sober facts of the human condition, not of callous indifference to the relief of man's estate. To quote Keynes again, his work is really in "the tradition which is suggested by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Paley, Bentham, Darwin and Mill, a tradition marked … by a prosaic sanity … and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit." As against, say, Condorcet, who wrote of inevitable progress while under the shadow of the guillotine, Malthus was concerned first with finding what the facts are and then with discovering how, in the light of those perhaps recalcitrant facts, we are to do the best we can. It is no accident that in the first chapter of the First Essay he acknowledges a debt to David Hume and Adam Smith but not to the impossible and visionary Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom his father had known and admired.


The same intellectual associations are seen in his theodicy. William Paley was one of the early converts to Malthus on population, and appropriately, Paley was one of Malthus's favorite theologians. So Malthus insists in the First Essay that "Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity." (It was from this part of the work that Darwin and Wallace most directly derived the idea of a necessary struggle for existence.) What Malthus may have acquired from the dissenting Christians and Unitarians of his father's circle is a note of theological radicalism, a note not caught either by the hostile conventional left, represented then by Wiliam Cobbett and William Hazlitt, or by such sentimental conservative opponents as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey.

In the theodicy of the last chapter of the First Essay Malthus boldly steps away from Paley and from the whole tradition of Christian orthodoxy by insisting that "it is perfectly impossible to conceive that any … creatures of God's hand can be condemned to eternal suffering. Could we once admit such an idea, all our natural conceptions of goodness and justice would be completely overthrown, and we could no longer look on God as a merciful and righteous Being." (Malthus settles his own account with Christianity by accepting the Hobbist interpretation; that eternal death means eternal death and not eternal life in torment. The "doctrine of life and immortality which was brought to light by the gospel" is "the doctrine that the end of righteousness is everlasting life, but that the wages of sin are death." This plausible reading had been unanimously rejected by the orthodox Saints and Fathers, doubtless as being unacceptably merciful.)


As a heuristic and explanatory scheme, the population theory resembles bits of classical physics, although it might also be usefully compared with that of Darwinism. The fundamental principle is like the first law of motion in that both describe not what does go on but what would go on if there were no counteracting forces; and in both cases the main theoretical function of the basic law is to generate questions about such forces and checks. Again, Malthus in classifying checks always aims at complete, exhaustive lists; and his arguments often depend on his appreciation that the values of the various checks considered as variables will be, for a given population, inversely connected: the bigger the sum of the preventive checks, the smaller the sum of the positive checks; and so on. These are similarities of which Malthus himself—thanks to his mathematical training at Cambridge—seems to have been aware. (It is doubtless to the same training that we owe his introduction of the supposition of the arithmetical progression to which, and to the consequent comparison of the two progressions, is due much of the appearance of "mathematical certainty" in his demonstrations.)

Malthus never tied up all the various minor logical loose ends in his original conceptual scheme, although he added important appendices to the third and fifth editions of his work in 1806 and 1817 and wrote the article "Population" for the 1824 supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (revised and published separately as his last word in 1830). But the main objections to Malthus that emerged from the enormous controversy are two, one moral and one logical. The moral objection repudiates Malthus's total rejection of contraception. It is this repudiation, combined with acceptance of Malthus's warnings on the dangers of overpopulation, which makes a Neo-Malthusian. The suggestion sometimes heard that the spread of contraception has made Malthusian ideas obsolete should be seen as manifestly absurd. Contraception is one kind of preventive check; none at all would bePage 677  |  Top of Article required if the multiplicative power was not still there to be checked.

The second objection insists on a distinction, which Malthus was forever inclined to overlook, between two senses of tendency. A tendency to produce something may be a cause which, operating unimpeded, would produce it. But to speak of a tendency to produce something may also be to say that the result is one that may reasonably be expected to occur in fact. This point seems to have been put against Malthus for the first time by Nassau Senior in his Two Lectures on Population (1831) and was grudgingly accepted. It was developed in the following year by Archbishop Whateley in Lectures on Political Economy (ninth lecture).

If both these objections are accepted, it becomes possible to recognize the Malthusian menace but to insist that the tendency to catastrophe does not have to be a tendency in the second sense—not if people can be persuaded to employ the means which science has and will put into our hands. Yet Malthus must have the last word. For it was he who most dramatically and powerfully drew attention to an absolutely vital fact, a fact that is still persistently and often disastrously ignored. It is, in the words of Senior, that "no plan for social improvement can be complete, unless it embraces the means both of increasing production, and of preventing population making a proportionate advance."



An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. London: J. Johnson, 1798. Facsimile edition (London, 1926); paperback edition with introduction by K. E. Boulding (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959).

An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions. London, 1803. There is an Everyman Library edition (London and New York); the version now in print has an introduction by M. P. Fogarty.

Glass, D. V., ed. Introduction to Malthus. London: Watts, 1953. Includes discussion by Glass and others and an appendix of two things by Malthus.

T. R. Malthus: The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of Kanto Gakuen University.

The Malthus Library Catalogue: The Personal Collection of Thomas Robert Malthus at Jesus College, Cambridge. New York: Pergamon Press, 1983.

The Pamphlets of Thomas Robert Malthus. New York: A.M. Kelley, 1970.

An Essay on the Principle of Population: Text, Sources and Background, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1976.

Principles of Political Economy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus. Edited by E. A. Wrigley and David Souden. London: W. Pickering, 1986, 1798.


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Flew, Antony. "The Structure of Malthus' Population Theory." In Philosophy of Science: The Delaware Seminar. Vol. I, edited by B. Baumrin. New York: Interscience Publishers, 1963.

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Petersen, William. Malthus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Senior, Nassau William. Two Lectures on Population. London, 1831.

Turner, Michael Edward. Malthus and His Time. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Waterman, Anthony Michael C. Revolution, Economics, and Religion: Christian Political Economy, 1798–1833. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Whateley, Richard. Lectures on Political Economy. London, 1832.

Winch, Donald. Malthus. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997–2004.

Antony Flew (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446801232