18th Century to the Present
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Room FA 0406

Malthus, Condorcet, and the idea of "natural law"

Shortly after the French Revolution (1789) the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794 CE) offered an argument in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind that described what would become a characteristic tenet of European Enlightenment thought: the perfectibility of the human species. We will see this principle reiterated frequently through the Enlightenment. "Would it be absurd now to suppose that the improvement of the human race should be regarded as capable of unlimited progress?" Condorcet proposes as a matter of natural law that it would not: that the human race is capable of unlimited progress.

A decade later Thomas Malthus responds in a similarly logical and 'scientific' vein that "... the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind." He proposed that the geometrical rise in population would eventually outstrip the arithmetic rise in available resources resulting in what would come to be known as a "Malthusian crisis" in which population would crash in famine.

Hans Rosling's impressive visualization that we viewed at the end of class would suggest that the evidence of history over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries would tend to support Condorcet's view, not that of Thomas Malthus.

What I want to observe here, however, in comparing these two views, is not that one was right and the other not, but that both are presented as proceeding from "natural law". Condorcet's views were born out by the accidents of history. The industrialization of the West happened to work out very well for the West. In China, however, we've seen that industrialization was not possible because of the "high level equilibrium trap" (Fernández-Armesto, p.688) China found itself in. Thus, the economic success of the West and "failure" of the Chinese Empire were the result of historical circumstances, not natural law.

However, the European and Enlightenment views of Condorcet were presented as being a matter of natural law: irrefutable and universally applicable. "The organic perfectibility or degeneration of races in plants and animals may be regarded as one of the general laws of nature." Similarly, Malthus, though he comes to a different conclusion, nevertheless also speaks of the "fixed laws of our nature". This characteristically Enlightenment preoccupation with natural law provided a powerful endorsement for the 19th century European program of colonization: Traditional societies and Empires that did not industrialize, increase their production, and move toward the perfectibility of the species, were not merely ill-advised, they were wrong; they were in violation of natural law. It was therefore often the conclusion of European powers in the 19th century that it was the obligation of those peoples who espoused "enlightened" and "scientific" principles, and thus did move toward the "improvement of the human race," to correct those who did not.

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