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Some Background

Malthus wrote his famous essay on population in order to controvert notions of human perfectibility which were still current in the wake of the French Revolution (1789), and espoused by such writers as William Godwin (1756-1836) and others. Malthus's purpose was to explode such notions based on his view of the inevitable scarcity that would always be a result of human overpopulation. Indeed the full title of Malthus's 1798 essay explicitly cites Godwin: An Essay On the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society with remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Concordet, and other writers.

Malthus's essay immediately created a great stir and he brought out a second, much expanded edition in 1803. Further revisions followed in 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826 but they were much less extensive ("Introduction" to Oxford paperback (1993) by Geoffrey Gilbert, p.xviii.)

Perhaps the most controversial section of the Essay (1798) occurs in Chapter V where Malthus attacks the Poor Laws, a decentralized system of poor relief in England, in practice for two hundred years . Malthus's purpose, as he explains throughout and makes clear in his headnote to Chapter V, was to palliate the condition of the poor and he attacked the Poor Laws on the ground that, while they might alleviate short term suffering, in the end, they cause greater suffering.

The section of Chapter V which has received the most censure is Malthus's dramatic call for the abolition of the Poor Laws, which has been called audacious; comparable to calling for the "abolition of the National Health Service in Britain today, or the Social Security System in the United States." (Gilbert, p. xvi) Malthus's call to end "welfare as we know it" confirms the view of many on the left that Malthus is solidly in the conservative, right-wing camp.

However, in the view of this writer, Malthus's profound understanding of the pressure of population on food supplies should not be overlooked because of his controversial program to end the Poor Laws .

Malthus on Sex - Another Limitation

Another limitation of Malthus, another sign that he was a man of his time as well as for all time, was his religious belief as an Anglican parson, that sexuality outside of marriage was a vice, an evil. Indeed, he included vice as one of his positive checks against runaway population growth, since he believed that during conditions of scarcity, marriages wou ld be postponed and people would nevertheless engage in sexual activity outside of marriage.

One way to put a positive spin on Malthus's narrow view of sexuality is to recognize that despite his moral/religious beliefs, he understood the difficulty of moderating the extraordinary power of human sexuality. In Malthus's view, the great power of human sexuality and the lack of sufficient checks to that power, guaranteed scarcity, conflict and misery.

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