Moral Influences on Historians

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Malthus was criticised of ‘confusing moral and scientific categories, of allowing the former to influence his understanding of the latter’. Should the historian’s work be free of moral influence?

‘Population was [for Malthus] the great Devil, the untamed Beelzebub that was only kept chained down by vice and misery, and which, if it were once let loose from these restraints, would go forth, and ravage the earth.’ (Hazlitt 1994, p.182)

This contemporary response to Malthus’s work by William Hazlitt echoes the main corpus of rejoinders raising the charge against Malthus that his work reflected uncorroborated ethical assumptions that ultimately would prove counterintuitive and fly in the face of common sense.

Although frequently articulated by his opponents, this essay will argue that this charge is mainly misguided. The question requires to explore three distinct but interrelated issues: first, whether Malthus’s work suffers from a confusion of moral and scientific categories. Second, whether the scientific aspects of his work have been subject to distortion on account of the moral principles he held to be true and valid. And third, whether history as a scholarly enterprise should be free from moral maxims.

The implications of all three issues are complex and reach far beyond the confines of this essay. Malthus’s work itself is easily straddling several domains of academic inquiry and part of the answer to whether his work suffers from the conflation of moral and scientific categories lies in the heterogeneous character of his work. It seems appropriate to elaborate all three issues mentioned above through an investigation of his main arguments. Malthus’s work disrespects neatly drawn boundaries of academic disciplines.

The essay will proceed as follows. In a first section it will outline what I believe the wider issue is that informs the debate surrounding the veracity and validity of Malthus’s historiographical work. The second part of the essay will sketch the primary arguments by Malthus and, eventually, relate these as we go along to the issues of objectivity and neutrality.

Malthus wrote at the intersection of three domains of intellectual engagement. At the time of the publication of his work, none of these fields had emerged as scholarly disciplines in themselves, although one (history) was in the process of methodological standardisation. Malthus’s main thesis on the consequences and logic of population growth drew on one side from historical evidence and articulated a particular historical narrative. On the other hand, it advocated distinct measures to prevent unchecked population growth and therefore engaged with what we would now call social policy. On a meta-level, however, his historical narrative as well as his conclusions about the nature of population control and its desirability rested on assumptions about the nature of man and the role of reason in determining the common good of English society. In a wider sense then Malthus offered his readers a dense and complex philosophical framework that informed his analytical and interpretative project. The issue of scientific objectivity or moral influence of his work however does not extend equally into these three fields. And it is this disciplinary distinction which will allow us to clarify some of the challenges and accusations that were levelled against his work.

Interestingly the question whether Malthus confuses moral and scientific categories in his work only pertains to one dimension: that of history and historical evidence. Social policy is per se generated by ethical viewpoints about what society ought to look like and about the permissibility of human suffering or desirability of human happiness. Philosophy as an enquiry about the moral resources for social agency of individuals possesses equally qua definitionem a moral impetus. Neither of the two are therefore even in their ideal form free of ethical considerations, nor should they be. To deprive them of any normative content is to strip them of their essence.

This is not the case with history, or so at least some philosophers of history claim. The relevant debate is mainly cast in the issue of objectivity in historiography. Historical evidence so the main claim goes, can somehow be void of ethical judgement and so should be the end product of historical work, histories that purport to be an accurate portrayal of things past. Insofar as Malthus presented us in the Essay (Malthus 1970) with an example of historical writing, he would have to abide by strict guidelines of what constitutes objective historiography. There are several confusions here at work that, once clarified, instantly defuse the charge of subjectivity against Malthus.

If we understand objectivity in historical writing as absence of undue personal bias then little of historiography would pass this test. McCullagh has convincingly argued that such a stringent standard makes little sense (McCullagh 2000). If we probe our convictions further we may find it utterly reasonable that some types of political, ideological or moral bias find their way into our narratives. What we do find deplorable however is if historians try either to conceal their possible interests in giving a particular narrative a specific slant, or pretending to present to us in their narratives the epitome of objectivity in historical work. Furthermore, we can, as sensitive observers, detect biases and criticise them. All we need for that purpose is to be able to follow up the historical evidence and check that it corroborates the particular historical narrative under scrutiny. This way it is fairly easy for historians to distinguish a work written to robust methodological standards from a fanciful account of past events.

The thesis that objectivity is a standpoint universally shared and that therefore historical opinion ultimately must converge upon an indisputable singular truth is erroneous and distorts the nature of history as an intellectual endeavour. Objectivity in historiography can only amount to absence of obvious personal bias which still leaves us as historians with questions of contested interpretations and the problematic nature of evidence selection. History therefore is by nature a field of contestation, a conversation on things past (Oakeshott 1999) rather than the presentation of an ultimate irrefutable portrayal of events. If that is the case, moral maxims may play a role in the instruments of selection and interpretation in historical work, but that should not bother us as long as they are transparently articulated and remain susceptible to criticism.

Haskell has formulated a persuasive critique of those notions of history that assume historical writing be ethically neutral (Haskell 1990). We have, he writes, as much chances to prevent our moral convictions to colour our historical work as we have to detach us from our social lives and commitments. In fact it is at the heart of the philosophical project of scepticism to suggest that the search for an Archimedian point of view, which would expose to us the world as it is in some transcendent reality, is riddled with problems bordering on conceptual nonsense. It is this scepticism that informs Malthus’s work on population control and his critique of social policy and social reform. Consequently this critical project is formulated from an ethical standpoint which is clearly expressed and made transparent in his writings. The historical evidence he produces is equally open to scrutiny and he did abide by all common standards of methodological stringency endorsed at that time. Hence to claim that his historical account of population growth is unduly influenced by moral, political or ideological commitments which are immune from analytical scrutiny is to misunderstand the capacity of history for rigorous methodological discipline and professional standards.

Let us now turn to a brief outline of the various themes and arguments which Malthus presents in his work. As already mentioned his work is a multifaceted and richly textured argument which straddles at least three domains of intellectual inquiry: history, philosophy and social policy. To contend that Malthus’s essay is exclusively an example of history proper is to fail to recognise the multiplicity of his intentions as well as the depth of his argument. As I have argued above, it should cause us no trouble to accept that Malthus the historian has in fact worked from ethical assumptions that may not be universally shared and that these assumptions have influenced his selection of historical evidence as well as the interpretations of it. The standards of historical work stipulate simply that these assumptions can be revealed, scrutinised and criticised by evaluating the validity of his interpretations of historical evidence as well as the impartiality of his selection. This in essence is the nature of historical work and does not jeopardise any reasonable claim of the discipline as a whole to engage in an enterprise that can lay claim to be objective as different from morally neutral (Haskell 2000).

It is however a quite different story if we take Malthus to be an advocate of particular policies of public health or social reform. The question then does not seem to be whether or not Malthus was guided by his moral convictions in formulating his views on these matters, as he inevitably was, but whether his view of history should justifiably tell us anything about the way in which we should organise our society. The question resonates deeply with contemporary philosophical debates of which Malthus must have been keenly aware. Only some years before David Hume took issue with the view that we can infer the future from things past. There can be no doubt that to a certain degree Malthus is guilty of committing the mistake of extrapolating from past developments a picture of a desirable future state of British society. But let us in all fairness look at his claims in detail. In outlining his main arguments I will use a distinction made by Hamlin which I believe structures the field of interpretation in a helpful way and separates the contentious issues from the non-contentious ones.

Hamlin focuses first of all on Malthus’s core argument which is of descriptive nature in his statement of the population principle. As a purely descriptive proposition it must fail to invite criticism of ethical subterfuge. (Hamlin 2000, p.117). The principle of population can be summarised in three aspects. Firstly, Malthus believes to have shown that the ‘population cannot increase without the means of subsistence, second, that population invariably increases when the means of subsistence are available, and third that ‘the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice’ (Winch 1987, p.19)

Here Malthus works with two (mainly speculative) assumptions: first, that man’s drive to procreation is infinitely greater than the earth’s potential to produce subsistence. And second, that the sexual impulses of man are stable over history. Malthus illustrates the first postulate by contrasting the arithmetic power of subsistence to the geometric growth in population. The disparity between the two had been pointed out previously by other commentators, and critics have accordingly accused Malthus of plagiarism (Hazlitt 1994a, p.171). But it would only be fair to Malthus to mention that he never claimed to be the discoverer of this relation between the two different ratios (Hazlitt 1994a, p.171). Although Malthus attempts to support his calculations about the necessary divergence of the two ratios with some available figures on population growth and grain production in the past, his argument which links the two remains speculative.

This is not so much the case because he may use only a highly selective range of historical evidence (it can be disputed how much was available to him at the time), but rather because the disparity between the two hinges upon certain assumptions about the nature of population growth and food supply as well as their interaction. Malthus thinks that procreation is the natural outcome of the sexual impulse and does not reckon with the proliferation of already available means of prevention. Equally, his notion of food supply is one dimensional and consequently fails to take into account the possible variations of food produce. He notes that pasture necessarily makes less effective use of land than grain production, yet fails to see the different outcomes in nutritional value for humans. The speculative character of his writings therefore reside in the lack of depth of his calculations not in his moral convictions that may have come to bear upon his selection of historical evidence and his interpretation of it.

The second domain of his work relates to social policy and the potential of society to prevent misery. This introduces a first normative element into the picture but, contrary to many critics, Malthus’s ethical convictions do not confound the entire issue but only aspects of it. The fist aspect is whether or not it is true as a historiographical assertion that poverty exerts an influence upon the ability of population to grow. Here Malthus is still on descriptive ground. He once again may lack the empirical resources to reach a sufficiently informed judgement on the issue but nothing points to the possibility that Malthus follows in his interpretation of the available evidence a personal bias and subsequently tries to conceal it. His prose is not driven by ideological or moral convictions.

The second aspect however deals with the chances of success for a proactive policy of public health and welfare. Here he extrapolates from a mixture of historical evidence and some theories about social and economic agency. It is this mixture which opens him up to the charge of propagating the abolition of any reform agenda on the grounds of ideological beliefs. His position is informed by certain theories of socio-economic behaviour that are at best speculative, at worst simply false. His core argument rests on an analysis of the effects of resource scarcity in society. He notes that the provision of additional money to the poor, if not mirrored by an increase in food supply, only results in the increase of prizes. The overall effect comes to nought. As the income of the poor rises, so do the prizes since the demand exceeds now the supply of food. The intended effect is the continuation of misery for the poor (Malthus 1970, pp.94-95).

While this hints at an economic relationship that may or may not pan out in the predicted way, and overall may still prove to be overly simplistic, it can hardly be considered to be unduly influenced by moral beliefs. It is prima facie an economic theory which features (still) in many run of the mill explanations of prize development. Malthus however supports this idea with the notion that any kind of monetary assistance transforms the capacity of human agency for self-reliance negatively. He writes:

‘The poor laws are strongly calculated to eradicate this spirit [of independence]. … Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful. Such a stimulus seems to be absolutely necessary to promote the happiness of the great mass of mankind, and every attempt to weaken this stimulus, however benevolent its apparent intention, will always defeat its purpose.’ (Malthus 1970, p.98)

Here he presents us with what John Rawls would have called a background social theory that informs our interpretation of social activity and structures our notion of socio-economic agency (Rawls 1993). The difficulty is that these theories require justification in order to shed their ideological drift (Daniels 1996). Malthus seems to think that all sorts of dependence are deplorable, while all kinds of independence are laudable. What he fails to realise it that independence exists in social contexts which crucially shape the capacity to act as an economic or social agent. Clientelistic relationships for example may to some degree offset lack of money. On the other hand, the absence of either deprives any individual to enter the stage of economic co-operation in the first place, hence the chance to perpetuate personal independence and transform it into participation in social and economic schemes of co-operation.

Malthus’s theory about the stimulus of independence abstracts from the conditions that need to be fulfilled for active and effective socio-economic agency. This clearly reflects an ideological bias although, arguably, it may echo the beliefs and attitudes prevalent at the time.

Here Malthus’s work lacks the sceptical sting that it exhibits in other parts. The further one reads his essay the more he gets bogged down in speculations about the perfectibility of man and the conditions for moral excellence. These are regrettable deviations from his main argument and deflect from the validity of his historiographical reflections. Once again however, these are strictly speaking not confusions of historical evidence and moral convictions but attempts to defend the conclusions he drew from population development in the past for social policy. He may have committed a category mistake by drawing on descriptive data to formulate prescriptive and substantial policy and support this with views on human nature and the role of reason in society, but his historical credentials remain intact. Although his policy recommendations drew fire, it would be unfair to say that his selection of historical evidence was driven by personal interest or moral convictions.


Primary Sources

Malthus, Thomas Robert (1970), An Essay on the Principle of Population and a Summary view of the Principle of Population, New York: Penguin Books [1798 and 1830]

Hazlitt, William (1994a), An Examination of Mr. Malthus’s Doctrines, in Population. Contemporary Responses to Thomas Malthus, ed. By Andrew Pyle, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, pp. 170-175

Hazlitt, William (1994b), On the Principle of Population as Affecting the Schemes of Utopian Improvement, in Population. Contemporary Responses to Thomas Malthus, ed. By Andrew Pyle, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, pp. 176-183

Secondary Sources

Daniels, Norman (1996), Justice and Justification. Reflective Equilibrium in theory and practice, Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press

Hamlin, Christopher and Gallagher-Kamper, Kathleen (2000), Malthus and the Doctors: Political Economy, Medicine, and the State in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1800-1840, in Malthus, Medicine, and Morality: ‘Malthusianism’ after 1798, ed. By Brian Dolan, Amsterdam Atlanta: Rodopi, pp.115-140

Haskell, Thomas L. (1990), Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, in History and Theory, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp.129-157

Mccullagh, Behan C. (2000), Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation, in History and Theory, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp.39-66

Oakeshott, Michael (1999), On History and other essays, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund

Rawls, John (1993), Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press

Winch, Donald (1987), Malthus, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press

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