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An Analysis of the Ethical Issues Raised by Thomas Malthus’ Essay on Population

Malthus’s essay On the Principle of Population brings up important ethical considerations regarding population growth and the means of subsistence. Malthus argues that population increases geometrically while the food supply only increases arithmetically, resulting in a struggle for existence (Malthus). This principle has significant moral implications that are still relevant today. Debates over immigration, foreign aid, and environmental policy are directly related to concerns about population pressures and limited resources. Understanding Malthus’s warnings becomes more pressing as climate change threatens global food production. The essay will examine these ethical implications by analyzing the checks to population growth, criticisms of perfectibility theories, and the inevitability of poverty according to Malthus to argue that his population principle outlines a formidable moral constraint on humanity.

In the second chapter, Malthus states that there are two main checks on the population: preventative and positive checks. The preventative check involves moral restraint and delaying marriage, while the positive check involves “misery and vice” or famine, disease, and war (Malthus 6). This implies that unless the population is controlled through moral means like later marriage, immense suffering will ensue to bring the population back into line with the means of subsistence. The preventative check advocates for population control yet does so through virtue rather than force. Malthus notes that “the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal” (Malthus 5). Therefore, the principles outlined justify population control through moral and immoral means to avoid widespread misery. However, forcing population control policies that curb individual freedoms and privacy could undermine principles of benevolence and individual liberty.

Malthus criticizes theories of human perfectibility by thinkers such as Godwin and Condorcet, arguing that population pressure will inevitably prevent the realization of their utopian visions (Malthus xi). He writes, “the difficulty appears insurmountable” (Malthus 3). In later chapters, he refutes their specific conjectures about topics such as the extinction of desire between the sexes and indefinite life extension, showing “no indication in the past” to support undefended speculations (Malthus 12). By dismantling these perfectibilist philosophies, Malthus presents a pessimistic view of inevitable hardship that denies any possibility of future human progress or improvement of the poor’s conditions. Malthus believes people like Godwin and Condorcet fail to consider the problem of population pressure and need to address how their theories could solve the issue sufficiently. According to Malthus, wholesale societal changes proposed by utopian thinkers are impossible due to natural forces governing population growth (Malthus 1).

In chapter five, Malthus analyzes the poor laws in England and argues that they paradoxically worsen the situation of people experiencing poverty by encouraging earlier marriages and larger families that depend on assistance (Malthus 23). This implies that certain policies intended to help the impoverished may inadvertently cause more harm than good in the long run by exacerbating the problem of poverty. Malthus suggests the “absolute impossibility” of fully removing want under the population and limited resources system that he outlines (Malthus 25). Thus, his principles justify a harsh, even ruthless social Darwinism where interference to aid the poor clashes with the theoretical framework. Through analyzing the poor laws, Malthus shows how generosity and charity may be counterproductive when population pressures are ignored (Malthus 23). According to his view, the poor laws only provide temporary relief while allowing the root cause of poverty to multiply over generations. Therefore, Malthus critically critiques welfarist policies based on his population principle.

Malthus points to new colonies as examples of extreme population growth, citing the North American colonies where the population could double every twenty-five years in favorable circumstances (Malthus 36). However, he warns that even well-established states are subject to the same laws of population pressure, only growing more slowly. Famine and other catastrophes will quickly reassert their influence to curb the rapid population increase no matter the context (Malthus 36). This indicates that under Malthus’s theory, unrestrained population growth will inevitably lead to catastrophe regardless of the environment as the food supply struggles to keep pace. New colonies experienced rapid growth due to abundant resources and a lack of population pressures at their establishment. However, as Malthus observed in North America, this situation is temporary, and the population will eventually outpace food production unless checks take hold (Malthus 36). Ultimately, even frontier expansion has limits that will be confronted under continued geometric population growth relative to arithmetic food production.

In conclusion, Malthus’s essay On The Principle of Population outlines a formidable constraint on human progress with significant ethical implications regarding population control policies, aid for people experiencing poverty, concepts of human perfectibility, and sustainability. As the argument is founded on laws of nature that seem inevitably built into the human condition and our planet’s carrying capacity, its ethical conclusions suggest a dismal view of irreducible struggle and a necessity of checks on the population that may involve both virtue and vice. Over two centuries later, its implications continue to raise difficult moral issues around how societies can best adapt to this alleged principle. While criticized by some, Malthusian concerns about resource limitations versus unchecked population growth remain highly relevant today as rapid global development puts increasing pressure on the world’s finite supply of food, water, and other necessities. By extension, managing population issues prudently could play a key role in building a more environmentally and economically sustainable future for humanity.

Works Cited

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population. 1798. Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, 1998. Accessed Date.


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