Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Sergio Cremaschi, Utilitarianism and Malthus’s Virtue Ethics: Respectable, Virtuous and Happy. New York: Routledge, 2014. xviii + 205 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-73536-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David Levy, Department of Economics, George Mason University.


Sergio Cremaschi, professor of moral philosophy, in his new book expresses deep unhappiness with how generations of economists have dealt with Robert Malthus’s work.  Cresmaschi makes the case that when we deal with Malthus’s “utilitarianism” we simply do not know what we are writing about. Perhaps even worse, while we get the economics of Malthus’s past and present more or less correct, we inappropriate impose that on the future (p. 13).  Here Samuel Hollander’s work is singled out for unhappy attention[1];  James Bonar’s work is blamed for sending later historians of economics on the wrong path (p. 6);  and J. S. Mill gets noticed, perhaps ridiculed is the term, because of his “broad church utilitarianism” (p. 3) in which the Stoics and Christ Himself get baptized into the one true faith.

I’ll focus on linking the present to the future because it connects to so many important issues.  I’ll start with what Malthus has to say about the actual world and the future. Then I’ll seemingly detour to discuss God’s commands and Malthus’s major reform proposal. That will bring into focus Cremaschi’s text that is central to his case that the past and present do not bind the future.  Finally I’ll consider the issue of utilitarianism.

Present and future.  Cremaschi points out (pp. 82-3, 166) in a way I don’t believe has ever been laid out so clearly before, that the behavior Malthus would later (1803-1826) call “moral restraint” is already in the 1798 edition.  The question Malthus addresses is whether in a system of private property, people are deterred from marriage and consequent children by cost considerations.  Of course they are (Malthus 1996 [1798] p. 28). This can’t be a surprise; William Godwin said the same thing.[2]   Here’s what Godwin did not say: “And this restraint almost necessarily, though not absolutely so, produces vices” (Malthus 1996 [1798] pp. 28-29).

Malthus is making a modal claim. All modal claims are complicated but the way I would read this is to take “absolutely necessarily” to mean that which happens 100% of the time, so “almost necessarily, though not absolutely so” is strictly less than 100%.  Malthus needs something more fine-grained than what the traditional modal trichotomy of necessary, contingent and impossible provides (Lemmon 1979) and his usage seems clear enough.   So when Malthus says, over and over in 1803 and later, that actual moral restraint is uncommon, he’s not changed in the slightest.  Here there is no difference between Cremaschi and Hollander. That’s a good starting point. What about the future of moral restraint?[3]

Malthus in the first edition writes a good deal about the relationship between present and future if only to deal with Godwin’s immortality conjecture and the attendant decay of sexual interest:[4] “A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew, that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating; that the lips have grown harder, and more prominent; that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape; and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers” (Malthus 1996 [1798, p. 10]). To deal with couterfactuals Malthus insists on an observable trajectory in the actual world.  This will be important for the future of moral restraint.

Sancity of marriage.  Cremaschi finds a lack of attention to an important question (p. 63): “Here the problem [for those “addicted to promiscuous intercourse”] is why should God condemn an irregular connection between a man and a woman when such a connection adds to the happiness of both parties involved while not damaging anybody else? In Diderot’s words, why should the Deity mingle with the rubbing of two mucosa membranes, provided that the parts involved would be careful enough as to take care of the consequences of such rubbing?  I would say that the issue was never directly faced by Malthus, even less was it faced by any of his opponents, none of whom liked to be suspected of attacking the sanctity of marriage.”

Those whom Cremaschi regards the real utilitarians of the era, Bentham, James Mill and “their most faithful followers,” would not mind “undermining the sanctity of marriage” (p. 63).  On the question of God’s commands and evil, I have nothing to say which hadn’t occurred to the author of Job or to Mill in his reflections in Hamilton but unlike Cremaschi I find this issue discussed incessantly by both Malthus and his critics.

Let us work backwards. The final chapter in the 1803 edition, and the one immediately preceding the “Appendix” in successor editions, 1806-1826, is entitled “Of our rational expectations respecting the future improvement of Society.”  The fifth paragraph in all these editions distinguishes between helps and harms. Since the paragraph is not discussed in Cremaschi’s book, let me quote it in full: “Universally, the practice of mankind on the subject of marriage has been much superior to their theories; and however frequent may have been the declamations on the duty of entering into this state, and the advantage of early unions to prevent vice, each individual has practically found it necessary to consider of the means of supporting a family, before he ventured to take so important a step. That great vis medicatrix reipublicae, the desire of bettering our condition, and the fear of making it worse, has been constantly in action, and has been constantly directing people into the right road, in spite of all the declamations which tended to lead them aside” (Malthus 1996 [1803, pp. 598-99] [1806 II 492] [1807 II 416] [1817 III 311-12] [1826 II 433]).

“Bettering” presumably carries normative weight (Levy 1978). The reader of the twenty-first century, immersed in the modern Malthusian commentary, might not hear what Malthus’s British readers were unlikely to have forgotten: the words read from the Book of Common Prayer at their marriage service. Marriage, as participants would be taught, was “ordained as a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift to continency might marry and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” Behind this are verses from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7), so when the Benthamite attack came it was in a book titled Not Paul, but Jesus. Cremaschi’s ridicule of Mill suggests insufficient attention to the Benthamite trope that Jeremy was only the Second.

So Malthus views that what helps to be considerations of private well-being; what hurts are the declamations to flee fornication into marriage without consideration of the consequences.[5]  Malthus’s reform proposal is largely to stop badgering people to get married before they can reasonably expect to support their children.  Then he considers the consequences.  In an important passage Malthus explicitly worries that encouraging “moral restraint” might lead to immorality. “A third object which may be started [sic] to this plan, and the only one which appears to me to have any kind of plausibility, is, that, by endeavouring to urge the duty of moral restraint on the poor, we may increase the quantity of vice relating to the sex.  I should be extremely sorry to say any thing which could either directly or remotely be constructed unfavourably to the cause of virtue; but I certainly cannot think that the vices which relate to the sex are the only vices which are to be considered in a moral question; or that they are even the greatest and the most degrading to the human character. . . . there are other vices the effects of which are still more pernicious; and there are other situations which lead more certainly to moral offences than the refraining from marriage … A large class of women, and many men no doubt, pass a considerable part of their lives consistently with the laws of chastity [moral restraint in 1803]; but I believe there will be found very few who pass through the ordeal of squalid and hopeless poverty, or even of  long-continued embarrassed circumstances, without a great moral degradation of character”  (Malthus 1996 [1803, pp. 512-13][1806 II 350-52] [1807 II 274-75] [1817 II 117-18] [1826 II 294]).

First, note the difference between “a large class of women” and “many men.” This refers, in my reading, to the role of prostitution in the Malthusian “preventive check” (Levy 1978, 1999).  Given the almost but not quite impossibility of “moral restraint,” what should a poor man do?  Here again we see modal language at work when the predicted increase in vice from encouraging moral restraint is labeled “contingent” but the predicted increase in misery from encouraging early marriage is labeled “necessary.”  This passage is taken from the chapter “Of the consequences of pursing the opposite mode” which is important to Cremaschi’s’s argument: “If, on contemplating the increase of vice which might contingently follow an attempt to inculcate the duty of moral restraint, and the increase in misery that must necessarily follow the attempts to encourage marriage and population, we come to the conclusion not to interfere in any respect, but to leave every man to his own free choice, and responsible only to God for the evil which he does in either way; this is all I contend for . . .” (Malthus 1996 [1803 p. 523][1806 II 368] [1807 II 292 ] [1817 III 138] [1826 II 308-09]).

Now I believe we can address Cremaschi’s proof-text that the actual does not bind the future. Here’s the text he quotes from the “opposite mode” chapter a few pages later than the “increase of vice” passage. I italicize the sentence before the ones quoted: “In avoiding one fault we are too apt to run into some other; but we always find nature faithful to her great object, at every false step we commit, ready to admonish us of our errors, by the infliction of some physical or moral evil. If the prevalence of the preventive check to population, in a sufficient degree, were to remove many of the diseases which now afflict us, yet be accompanied by a considerable increase of the vice of promiscuous intercourse; it is probable that the disorders and unhappiness, the physical and moral evils arising from this vice, would increase in strength and degree; and, admonishing us severely of our error, would point to the only line of conduct approved by nature, reason, and religion: abstinence from marriage till we can support our children, and chastity till that period arrives” (Malthus 1996 [1803 p. 520] [1806 II 363-64] [1807 II 287-88] [1817 III 132-33] [1826 II 304]). So, in Cremaschi’s reading, this text demonstrates that the near impossibility of moral restraint in the actual world, either past or present, does not bind the future world.

By not addressing Malthus’s proposal to stop badgering people to flee fornication into premature marriage, Cremaschi misses what Malthus worries about: immoral restraint will increase if his reform works. Marriage will have been delayed by people consulting the interest of themselves and their future children. Malthus’s projected counter-factual trajectory if his metaadvice were adopted, is that immoral restraint increases.  Then Cremaschi’s text takes hold. Will the new higher level of fornication attendant to later marriage be equilibrium?  Malthus’s answer is simply that we have no reason to believe that it will; there are many social forces that will be called into being to reduce it.  Surely Hollander’s reading would be unperturbed by that contingency. Institutional change is complicated and it takes time to find a new equilibrium.  I suspect this would not surprise any economist, past, present or to come.

More modality.  Cremaschi’s nice contribution is to flag an instance of modal language in Malthus’s work.  Is there more? That is certainly what one might expect to find in someone who as a young person was immersed in Aristotelian logic (Cremaschi, p. 16).  Why might that matter to modern economists? Perhaps because economists of a certain age don’t recognize modal language when we read it. One of the great puzzles is what to make to David Ricardo’s “natural wage,” that what Ricardo defines as “that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without either increase or diminution” (Ricardo [1817] 1951, p. 93).   What has that to do with modality? Ricardo uses the word: nothing.  However, there is no reason to believe that Ricardo had the same immersion in Aristotelian logic as Malthus did.  Here’s what Malthus said about Ricardo’s usage: “Mr. Ricardo has defined the natural price of labour. . . . This price I should really be disposed to call a most unnatural price; because in a natural state of things, that is, without great impediments to the progress of wealth and population, such a price could not generally occur for hundreds of years” (1820, p. 247).

“Natural” is a modal concept that describes the “more frequently occurring” subset of contingent.[7]   Ricardo did not deny the fact Malthus insisted on, only to point out that he wasn’t using the word the same way Malthus was using it “By the natural price I do not mean the usual price, but such a price as is necessary to supply constantly a given demand.”  (Ricardo 1951 [1820] p. 227)

Utilitarianism. Cremaschi’s comments on the fear of Malthus and his critics to question the sanctity of marriage precedes a brief mention of Benthamite views on sexual relations. When Bentham and Francis Place attacked St. Paul’s general views in their book Not Paul but Jesus, it was carefully published under the name “Gamaliel Smith.” A reader of Acts might have smiled at the witty reference to the rabbi with whom Saul had been planning to study. While there is some reason to believe that the masque was penetrated by hostile critics, the disguise does suggest that Cremaschi is right that there would be costs to publically developing this line of argument.

Let’s read what Malthus wrote, explicitly and under his own name, about St. Paul’s teaching about marriage.  “I think it will be admitted, that if we apply the spirit of St. Paul’s declarations respecting marriage, to the present state of society, and the known constitution of our nature, the natural inference seems to be, that when marriage does not interfere with higher duties, it is right; when it does, it is wrong” (Malthus 1996 [1803, p. 501] [1806 II 332-33] [1807 II 256] [1817 III 98] [1826 II 280].

And what might these higher duties be? In the next sentence Malthus quotes William Paley’s doctrine and applies it to marriage: “According to the genuine principles of moral science, “The method of coming at the will of God from the light of nature is to inquire into the tendency of the action to promote or diminish the general happiness.” There are perhaps few actions that tend so directly to diminish the general happiness, as to marry without the means of supporting children.”

Contemporary Christian teaching judged in the basis of general happiness and found wanting. How does Cremaschi read this passage? He implicitly denies that it exists. That won’t do. The Word of God as read by Malthus’s contemporaries is judged by the happiness principle.

Now a paragraph on median-based utilitarianism with which Cremaschi expresses unhappiness and about which Sandra Peart and I have written a good deal (Peart and Levy 2005). The utilitarian slogan “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is found no later than Francis Hutcheson in 1725. F. Y. Edgeworth pointed out the incoherence of the slogan and so proposed to drop the “greatest number” to save the philosophy. The incoherence might have resulted from the implicit collision of two models. Can we extract the one that Edgeworth didn’t develop? Let us ask about the greatest happiness of the majority. A numerical example might help, so consider two possible social states (A and B) each with three individuals. A and B are written as vectors, the numbers are units of happiness for the three individuals in each particular state, higher is better.  Consider A = {1,2,9]; B = {2,3,4}. A has mean happiness of 4; median happiness of 2. B has mean and median happiness of 3. Cremaschi’s definition of utilitarianism requires interpersonal cardinality (Cremaschi 4 axiom ii), but surely a median-based utilitarianism avoids all that. I’m not sure Cremaschi would agree, but this is the way of thinking Peart and I defend, this is a benefit not a cost.  We don’t need the utilitarian expert with Edgeworth’s hedonimeter and a table of integration to make the call between state A and state B.  One can ask our three agents to vote on the alternatives. Median-based utilitarianism helps explain the march of utilitarianism toward democracy in a way that mean-based utilitarianism does not.

The review shouldn’t end on a grumble, the book is too interesting for that. Cremaschi’s discussion of what kept Malthus from accepting contraception (p. 174-79) is the best I know and will require much reflection.



1. Hollander’s magisterial Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (Hollander 1997) draws the attention but his introduction to his edition of the sequence of Malthus editions (Hollander 1996) contains a focused statement of what will be controversial.

2. Godwin (1793, p. 34) “… a large family has in the lower order of life become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness.” Godwin’s natalist criticism of the system of private property, in which delayed marriage prevents the birth of children, has been much neglected (Levy 1999). Given his later words on infanticide as a way to save the system of equality (Godwin 1801), his judgment on a system of private property is rather unhappy: “Thus the established system of property may be considered as strangling a considerable portion of our children in their cradle.” Godwin (1793, p. 813)

3. The doctrine that the past and the present do not bind the future is found in Malthus’s 1803 response to Godwin in which Malthus writes of moral restraint: “whatever hopes we may entertain of its prevalence in the future, has undoubtedly in past ages operated with [very 1803] inconsiderable force” (Malthus 1996 [1803 p. 384] [1806 II 128] [1807 II 52]). Did the removal of “very” in 1806 indicate a shift in Malthus’s attitude toward the past? The dropping of “very” in 1806 is not noticed in Patricia James’s edition (Malthus [1803] 1989) I: 330,

4. Godwin (1793, p. 871): “The men therefore who exist when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will cease to propagate, for they will no longer have any motive, either of error or duty, to induce them, In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal.”

5. This is of course the basis of Malthus’s response to Godwin. A system of equality attenuates private considerations. Godwin got the point centuries before modern economists who insisted on reading Malthus with a fixed age of marriage. In closing his remarks on Malthus, in the 1801 response, Godwin states the issue dividing them in terms of what modern economists should have recognized, but largely did not, as a collective action problem: “It is true, the ill consequence of a numerous family will not come so coarsely home to each man’s individual interest, as they do at present. It is true, a man in such a state of society might say, if my children cannot subsist at my expense, let them subsist at the expense of my neighbor” (Godwin 1801, p. 74). Italics added. Malthus’s response, quoting the italicized words, is found in Malthus (1996 [1803, p. 385] [1806 II 131-32] [1807 II 55-56]).

6. The index to Political Economy contains this most revealing entry (1820, p. 599): “his definition of the natural price of labour erroneous.” It is hard to overstate the gulf that separates the logical world of Malthus from twentieth century conventions in which it would be entirely odd to write of a definition as in error. Part of Hollander’s defense of a sequences of reproductions of Malthus’s population editions is that only this preserves the elaborate indices (Hollander 1996, p. viii). An elaborate index the author prepares is certainly an authoritative interpretation.

7. The texts are collected in Levy and Peart 2013 to help explicate the logic of Adam Smith’s argument.



[Bentham, Jeremy and Francis Place = “Gamaliel Smith”]. 1823. Not Paul, but Jesus. London. Printed for John Hunt.

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David Levy is the co-author (with Sandra Peart) of Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy due out October 2016 from Cambridge University Press.


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