Tyler Cowen on Malthus on vice

So one way to read Malthus is this: if a society is going to have any prosperity at all, the people in that society either will be morally quite bad, or they have to be morally very, very good, good enough to exercise that moral restraint. Alternatively, you can read Malthus as seeing two primary goals for people: food and sex. His accomplishment was to show that, taken collectively, those two goals could not easily be obtainable simultaneously in a satisfactory fashion. In late Freudian terms, you could say that eros/sex amounts to the death drive, but again painted on a collective canvas and driven by economic mechanisms.

Malthus also hinted at birth control as an important social and economic force, especially later in 1817, putting him ahead of many other thinkers of his time. Birth control was widely practiced for centuries through a variety of means, and Malthus unfortunately was not very specific. He did call it unnatural,” and the mainstream theology of his Anglican church condemned it, as did many other churches. But what did he really think? Was this unnatural practice so much worse than the other alternatives of misery and vice that his model was putting forward? Or did Malthus simply fail to see that birth control could be so effective and widespread as it is today? It doesn’t seem we are ever going to know.

From Malthus’s tripartite grouping of vice, moral restraint, and misery, two things should be clear immediately. The first is why Keynes found Malthus so interesting, namely that homosexual passions are one (partial) way out of the Malthusian trap. The second is that there is a Straussian reading of Malthus, namely that he thought moral restraint, while wonderful, was limited in its applicability. So maybe then vice wasn’t so bad after all? Is it not better than war and starvation?

I don’t buy the Straussian reading as a description of what Malthus really meant. But he knew it was there, and he knew he was forcing you to think about just how bad you thought vice really was. Malthus for instance is quite willing to reference prostitution as one possible means to keep down population. He talks about men,” and a numerous class of females,” but he worries that those practices lower in the most marked manner the dignity of human nature.” It degrades the female character and amongst those unfortunate females with which all great towns abound, more real distress and aggravated misery are perhaps to be found, than in any other department of human life.”

How bad are those vices relative to starvation and population triage? Well, the modern world has debated that question and mostly we have opted for vice. You thus can see that the prosperity of the modern world does not refute Malthus. We faced the Malthusian dilemma and opted for one of his options, namely vice. It’s just that a lot of us don’t find those vices as morally abhorrent as Malthus did. You could say we invented another technology that (maybe) does not suffer from diminishing returns, namely improving the dignity and the living conditions of those who practice vice. Contemporary college dorms seem pretty comfortable, and they have plenty of birth control, and of course lots of vice in the Malthusian sense. While those undergraduates might experience high rates of depression and also sexual violation, that life of vice still seems far better than life near the subsistence point. I am not sure what Malthus would think of college dorm sexual norms (and living standards!), but his broader failing was that he did not foresee the sanitization and partial moral neutering of what he considered to be vice.

Quote tyler cowen thomas malthus scarcity moral philosophy evolution value drift