Utilitarianism and Malthus' Virtue Ethics
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Utilitarianism and Malthus' Virtue Ethics

Sergio Cremaschi

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Utilitarianism and Malthus' Virtue Ethics

Sergio Cremaschi

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About This Book

The die-hard image of Malthus the ogre has not completely disappeared yet. And yet, Malthus showed no less concern than Adam Smith for the labouring poor. In order to make full sense of such expression of concern and to appraise their relevance in Malthus's work, we need to know what moral philosophy, what view of natural science, and what view of the "moral and political science" Malthus endorsed.

This book reconstructs Malthus's meta-ethics, his normative ethics and his applied ethics on such topics as population, poverty, sexuality and war and slavery. They show how Malthus's understanding of his own population theory and political economy was that of sub-disciplines of moral and political philosophy. Empirical enquiries required in order to be able to pronounce justified value judgments on such matters as the Poor Laws. But Malthus's population theory and political economy were no value-free science and his non-utilitarian policy advice resulted from his overall system of ideas and was explicitly based on a set of familiar moral assumptions.

It is mistaken to claim that Malthus's explanation of disharmony by reference to Divine Wisdom is extraneous to analysis and without influence on the theory of policy; it is true instead that theological consequentialist considerations were appealed to in order to provide a justification for received moral rules, but these were meant to justify a rather traditional normative ethics, quite far from Benthamite 'new morality'.

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1 Malthus the Utilitarian vs. Malthus the Christian moral thinker

DOI: 10.4324/9781315819235-1
Malthus was believed by several historians of economic thought to have been a utilitarian. In fact he frequently mentioned ‘utility’ as a test for moral laws, and the greatest sum of happiness for his creatures as the goal the Creator had in mind. On the other hand, he was the target of James Mill’s scorn for his priest-like nonsense, and he did, in fact, mention more than once ‘laws of nature’, ‘virtue’ and ‘rights’, that is, precisely the kind of ideas Bentham believed to be ‘nonsense upon stilts’. The alternative between Malthus the Utilitarian and Malthus the Christian Moral Thinker has emerged again in a recent dispute between Hollander and Winch. Settling the dispute is not the main aim in this book, which aims instead at reconstructing a ‘stereoscopic’ view of Malthus’s social science qua applied ethics, but at least I will try to do also that, and, in case I succeed, this will be one useful side-effect.
Malthus understood his own contributions as belonging neither to demography nor to economics – the later labels for two still non-existing disciplines – but instead to the ‘moral and political science’. Note that ‘political economy’ was becoming the name for a discipline precisely in those years, while for Adam Smith it still conveyed the flavour of the rhetorical figure through which Antoine de Montchrétien had launched the expression in 1615, a label for the management of the resources of the nation as if they were those of a private household. Besides, in cases he used the expression to denote those systems which he criticized, and not just a part of ‘the science of a legislator’, he tended to associate it with the word ‘systems’, one with a rather derogatory connotation hinting at an aprioristic way of thinking which tends to bend facts to theory instead of correcting theory in the light of facts, like the Cartesian theory of vortexes (Cremaschi 1981; 1984, pp. 11–72; 1989; 2000). This is why Malthus claimed that political economy is a science that ‘bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics’ (Malthus 1820, vol. 1, p. 2) than to mathematics, and that his own contribution to the field might be of use to those who were interested in ‘moral and political questions’ (Malthus 1803, vol. 1, p. 3). Given such self-image of his work, singling out ‘the philosophic tradition to which Malthus belongs’ (Paglin 1961, p. 15) is no matter of idle curiosity; Paglin went on complaining of confusion lingering in the literature regarding this point, and added that:
Bonar as well as more recent authors such as Lionel Robbins and Plamenatz have tended to consider Malthus as a participant in the utilitarian tradition. This was based on the fact that Malthus occasionally used the principle or utility in his reasoning on economic problems. But as we shall see, this is not a sufficient reason for considering him as a utilitarian at a time when utilitarianism had crystallized into a complete theory of government and a definite body of policy prescriptions.
(p. 16)
Unfortunately Paglin added of his own to the confusion existing, by enlisting him instead in the current of ‘conservative traditionalism espoused by Burke’ (p. 16). Several later commentators – the most recent among them is Samuel Hollander – seem to believe that Malthus, who never met Bentham and apparently never read anything of his and had a rather distant and occasionally conflictive relationship with James Mill (Cremaschi and Dascal forthcoming), was nonetheless simply a Utilitarian in ethics and politics. I believe that this sounds a bit strange to anybody who has any familiarity with the climate of opinion in early nineteenth-century Britain. In these decades there was an increasingly raging confrontation going on between several alignments, namely conservative-conservative Tories and conservative-humanitarian Tories, Whigs, an older petty-bourgeois radicalism that had Godwin as its spokesman, and an emerging new middle-class radicalism that found its spokesmen in the Philosophic Radicals (Fetter 1965). This confrontation became increasingly polarized around the two poles that survived natural selection. The two currents fit for survival were the Whigs and the Philosophic Radicals (later called Utilitarians) and the alternative was defined by a number of oppositions: Church of England vs. irreligion, the British Constitution vs. democracy, the interests of the gentry vs. those of the urban middle class, the soft version of principle of population vs. its hard version (Lively and Rees 1978; Cremaschi and Dascal forthcoming).
In ethics and politics, Whigs had either Paley or Dugald Stewart as their mentors. In the first three decades the principle of utility was not a debated issue or a source of dispute between the Whigs and the Philosophic Radicals. In fact, Bentham’s more abstract theories still had scant circulation and it was about the practical agenda that cooperation was established between real Benthamite (amounting perhaps, strange as it may sound, to Bentham himself and James Mill – not a large group) and other friends of reason, first among them Unitarians, like John Bowring or David Ricardo. It was perhaps in the Thirties and Forties, when an inductivist idea of the ‘Noble science of Politics’ was vindicated against Bentham’s aprioristic approach by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1829) that the difference between Whig liberalism and Utilitarian technocracy was denounced (Lively and Rees 1978), and Paley’s authority was first contested within Anglicanism while an Intuitionist alternative emerged to both Paleyite and Benthamite ethics (Whewell 1845; Cremaschi 2006; 2008).
This does not amount to assuming that Paleyite and Benthamite ethics and politics were basically the same. Indeed they were different; for example Paleyite politics made room for innate rights, and it legitimized the institution of monarchy, and Paleyite ethics accepted the traditional set of duties and virtues as had been taught by the Anglican and the Ciceronian humanist traditions without any concession to Bentham’s ‘new morality’. It was just the presence of something called the ‘principle of utility’ that made for a similarity between both schools, a similarity by which Albee (1901) was later seduced into dreaming of an alleged school of religious Utilitarians as a forerunner of the school of secular utilitarianism. But the principle played a different function in each system; for Paley and his followers it was a test of laws that may be assumed to be sanctioned by divine will; for Bentham it was instead a normative criterion to be applied directly to real-world cases. Bonar’s claim, uncritically followed by others, that Malthus had been basically a ‘utilitarian’ is accordingly either irreparably vacuous or blatantly false. In a thin sense, being a utilitarian could be read as implying accepting the principle of utility as playing some role, and this was what Malthus clearly did, as several others had done before him. But if the function of the principle is accounting for God’s choice of one given set of moral laws, this is fully compatible with adhesion to one version of the same moral and political system that Bentham believed to be his mission to attack (Crimmins 1998). In a thicker sense, if the word Utilitarian denotes a follower of the family of doctrines that was being promoted by the group called the Philosophic Radicals, or the Benthamite, or later on, the Utilitarians, it is clear enough that Malthus was no Utilitarian and that he was precisely one of the enemies the Bentham–Mill coterie wanted to fight. In fact, this family of doctrines included democracy, atheism, psychological associationism, sociological individualism, Laissez-Faire economic liberalism somehow supported by a simplified version of Ricardianism, and the ‘new morality’, in turn consisting of hedonism, the harmony between self-interest and general interest, and the war on prejudice. The right answers then is that, first, the utilitarians in the first decades of the nineteenth century were the ‘Philosophic radicals’, and it is clear beyond any doubt that Malthus did not belong to the group; second, that ‘the utilitarian tradition has always seen itself as a broad church’ (Chappell and Crisp 1998, p. 552) and accordingly tended to present almost everybody as its own ‘forerunner’ (indeed John Stuart Mill went so far as to enlist Jesus and the Stoics in the category), and accordingly also the Anglican consequentialist voluntarism – a current that will be discussed in the next chapter – as soon as Paley, the last of its proponents, lost any influence and ceased being a dangerous competitor, was reclassified under the fuzzy label ‘forerunners’.
On the basis of these considerations, we could start making sense of two apparently inconsistent facts, first, that Malthus was no ‘utilitarian’ in matters of normative ethics and even less in matters of political doctrines, since what he contended for on most issues was the opposite of what Bentham’s followers wanted; second, that the Malthusian system of ideas has one intersection with the Benthamite one. A reasonable way of making sense of these facts may be assuming that (i) Malthus’s ethical theory shared important elements with Bentham’s utilitarianism simply because Bentham was less original than utilitarian hagiography has always been preaching, and indeed had borrowed those elements from the same sources as Malthus; (ii) Bentham’s followers adopted so enthusiastically Malthus’s population theory and found it so powerful a weapon for fighting their own battles that they ignored everything Malthus had to add from 1803 on, sticking to its early cruder version; (iii) after 1820, in order to bring some order into their mixed pro- and anti-Malthus attitude, they adopted the doctrine formulated by John Ramsey McCulloch (1820) according to which there are ‘two Malthuses’: the ‘progressive’ one, that is, the population theorist, and the ‘reactionary’ one, that is, the political economist.
As to the shared sources in ethical theory, these were the proponents of the doctrine that I have proposed to name – as a token for a better word – ‘consequentialist voluntarism’ (Cremaschi 2008), that is, the Anglican divines Richard Cumberland, John Gay, Thomas Brown and David Hartley and, obviously enough, Paley. Bentham’s revolution in ethical theory consisted simply in taking their doctrine and cutting its head – namely God – off, thus leaving the moral agent alone in judging. The important difficulty implied was that the moral agent was left to himself also as far as sanctioning was concerned, but without the Creator’s alleged omnipotence that made such a task supposedly easier to carry out. Bentham’s effort at finding a solution for this problem in the Deontology, decades after the Introduction, testifies as to his awareness of the conundrum any non-theological consequentialism unavoidably ends with.
The conclusion is that Malthus was simply a follower of this school, whose doctrine he had been taught at Cambridge, and which – far from being not-yet-fully-secularized-utilitarianism or better atheism-for-clergymen – was instead a doctrinal system on his own, with its own inner logic and – unsavoury as it may prove to any post-Kantian (or post-Barthian, or post-Bonhoefferian) palate including that of the present writer – more consistent than Benthamite utilitarianism. If any surviving Utilitarian is unconvinced, he may look at Sidgwick’s reflections on the conclusions reached in his own Methods of Ethics, namely that ‘we are limited to merely mundane sanctions, owing to the inevitable divergence, in this imperfect world, between the individual’s Duty and his Happiness’ (Sidgwick 1906, p. 472).
In order to make my conclusion more precise, let me start with current definitions of utilitarianism. These (Chappell and Crisp 1998; Smart 1967; Lyons 2001; Sinnot-Armstrong 2006) suggest that a utilitarian theory implies:
  1. a definition of the good in terms of welfare;
  2. an assumption that we can compare welfare across different people’s lives;
  3. a definition of the right in terms of the good, or consequentialism.
I would like to add two more conditions, spelling out what is already in the former, namely:
  1. impartiality as a criterion for the allocation of such good;
  2. identification of the judging subject with the agent.
I assume the five above conditions to be necessary and sufficient ones. One more condition is required for inclusion into a stricter kind of utilitarianism, that is, act-utilitarianism, namely:
  1. individual acts, not classes of acts, are considered.
On the basis of such a definition, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and John Stuart Mill may be safely classified as utilitarian philosophers, albeit the younger Mill does not comply with requirement (vi), while this is not true of William Paley, who fails to comply with requirement (v), even though he does with (vi); Malthus does somewhat worse than Paley, since – as I argue in what follows – he fails to comply with requirements (v) and (vi) and limits the scope of (iii) to the point that it does apply to the spectator but does not to the agent.
So, who was properly a utilitarian? ‘Theological utilitarianism’ has been used for almost one century as a label for such theories as Paley’s. I suggest instead that, even though everybody has a right to paste any label he likes upon any pot he chooses, theological utilitarianism sounds too much of an oxymoron and it was invented by secular utilitarians in order to provide a pigeon-hole for those second-rank utilitarians who forgot to abjure their Christian faith. But Paley’s doctrine was not a sweetened version of Bentham’s (and indeed Bentham’s appeared after Paley), but instead a not-too...

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Citation styles for Utilitarianism and Malthus' Virtue Ethics
APA 6 Citation
Cremaschi, S. (2014). Utilitarianism and Malthus’ Virtue Ethics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/717650/utilitarianism-and-malthus-virtue-ethics-pdf (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Cremaschi, Sergio. (2014) 2014. Utilitarianism and Malthus’ Virtue Ethics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/717650/utilitarianism-and-malthus-virtue-ethics-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Cremaschi, S. (2014) Utilitarianism and Malthus’ Virtue Ethics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/717650/utilitarianism-and-malthus-virtue-ethics-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cremaschi, Sergio. Utilitarianism and Malthus’ Virtue Ethics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.