Utilitarianism and Malthus’s virtue ethics. Respectable, virtuous, and happy

Abingdon, UK: Routledge (2014)
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1Preface: Malthus the Utilitarian vs. Malthus the Christian moral thinker. The chapter aims at reconstructing the deadlocks of Malthus scholarship concerning his relationship to utilitarianism. It argues that Bonar created out of nothing the myth of Malthus’s ‘Utilitarianism’, which carried, in turn, a pseudo-problem concerning Malthus’s lack of consistency with his own alleged Utilitarianism; besides it argues that such misinterpretation was hard to die and still persists in Hollander’s reading of Malthus’s work. ● 2 Eighteenth-century Anglican ethics. The chapter gives an overview of eighteenth-century Anglican ethics, noticing how the Cambridge tradition gave special weight to natural theology as opposed to positive or revealed theology and how two Cambridge fellows, John Gay and Thomas Brown worked out a kind of a rational-choice account of the origins of natural laws, where a law-giver God chooses among a number of possible sets of laws on the basis of a maximizing criterion, happiness for his creatures. ● 3 Malthus’s meta-ethics. The chapter reconstructs the two ethical chapters of the second Essay. It argues that Malthus’s ethics is not dependent on Paley’s, but is derived from Cumberland, Butler, Gay, Brown. Besides, it argues that theodicy takes a new place in the 1803 Essays and ethics becomes a key to theodicy. The new solution is that, once it has been proved that passions can be mastered and that a world where passions are under control would be a comparatively happy place, a society where moral restraint prevailed would make the middling ranks more numerous, reduce dependence, and preserve liberty. ● 4 Malthus’s early normative ethics: a morality of freedom. The chapter reconstructs young Malthus’s views on the foundations of ethics, proving his adhesion to voluntarist consequentialism. Then it reconstructs his treatment of political issues, whence a clear stance emerges in favour of traditional Whig concerns, such as political freedom, personal independence and dignity. Finally, it gives a fresh look at the theological argument in the two well-known final chapters, locating it in the context of consequentialism, voluntarism, and quasi-Leibnizian theodicy. ● 5 Malthus’s intermediate normative ethics: a morality of prudence. Malthus’s normative ethics focuses on two main ‘natural’ virtues, benevolence and chastity, and three artificial virtues. These include love for equality and love for liberty. A special place is granted to another virtue, prudence, which is the link between natural and artificial virtues. This special virtue also provides an invisible link between the private and the public domains, in that it contributes to combine self-love with general happiness. This is granted by the unintended results mechanism, or “the happiness of the whole is to be the result of the happiness of individuals, and to begin first with them. No cooperation is required”. ● 6 Malthus’s mature normative ethics: a morality of humanity. The chapter describes reactions by Evangelicals, such as Gisborne, Sumner, and Chalmers, to Malthus’s theory and Malthus’s transformation of his own system in order to pave objections. This amounts to incorporating The Evangelicals’ ideas into his own system. The friendly controversy with his Evangelical fellow-travellers yielded several important changes in 1806, 1817, and 1826 editions of the second Essay in the formulation of Malthusian ethics, in the adoption of moral improvement instead of happiness as the variable to be maximised, in the adoption of generalized education as the main weapon in the war on poverty. ● 7 Malthus’s applied ethics. The chapter reconstructs Malthus’s treatment of a few issues in ‘applied ethics’, sexual morality, public morality, poverty, and besides, war and slavery. On the first issue, he argues the duty to marry only at a time when one is ready to carry the burden of six children as a moral duty imposed by prudence and rejects birth control because of its alleged effect of encouraging ‘indolence’. On the second issue, he defends a peculiar kind of Whiggism as anti-Machiavellian politics centred on rights, equality, and dignity. On the third issue, his final approach is a kind of Institutional approach to poverty, making room for generalized basic education, free markets for labour and allowing for a subsidiary role for private beneficence. The goal to be aimed at is bringing about circumstances which tend to elevate the character of the lower classes of society and offer them a chance of being respectable, virtuous and happy. ● 8 Conclusions: strengthening the theological foundation. Malthus’s criteria for policy appraisal were not utilitarian ones. His normative ethics and his politics were sharply different from Bentham’s. Utility is just one element in Malthus’s ethics, going with laws of nature and rights, and ironically, far from being a Benthamite insertion, is the most markedly theological element in Malthus’s system of ideas. ●



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Sergio Volodia Marcello Cremaschi
Università Cattolica di Milano (PhD)

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