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Moral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question online

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the temperate fulfilling of the dictates of this, as well as
of almost all other instincts, confers pleasure. The de-
sire of offspring would probably induce us to perpetuate
the species, though no gratification were connected with
the act. In the language of the optimist, then, " plea-
sure is gratuitously superadded." But, instead of paus-
ing to admire arrangements and intentions, the great
whole of which human reason seems little fitted to ap-
preciate or comprehend, I content myself with remark-
ing, that this very circumstance (in itself surely a fortu-


nate one, inasmuch as it adds another to the sources of
human happiness) has often been the cause of misery ;
and, from a blessing, has been perverted into a curse.
Enjoyment has led to excess, and sometimes to tyranny
and barbarous Injustice.

Were the reproductive instinct disconnected from plea-
sure of any kind, it would neither afford enjoyment nor
admit of abuse. As it is, the instinct is susceptible of
either; just as wisdom or ignorance governs human
laws, habits, and customs. It behooves us, therefore, to
be especially careful in its regulation ; else what is a
great good may become for us a great evil.

This instinct, then, may be regarded in a two-fold
light ; first, as giving the power of reproduction : second-
ly^ as affording pleasure.

And here, before I proceed, let me recall to the reader's
mind, that it is the province of rational beings to bear
UTILITY strictly in view. Reason recognizes as little
the romantic and unearthly reveries of Stoicism, as she
does the doctrines of health-destroying and mind-debas-
ing debauchery. She reprobates equally a contemning
and an abusing of pleasure. She bids us avoid asceti-
cism on the one hand, and excess on the other. In all
our enquiries, then, let reason guide us, and let UTILITY
be our polar star.

I have often had long arguments with my friends, the
Shakers,* touching the two-fold light in which the re-
productive instinct may be regarded. They commonly
stand out stoutly against the propriety of considering it
except simply as a means of perpetuating the species ;

* I call them my friends, because, however little I am disposed to ac-
cede to all their principles, I have met, from among their body, a greater
proportion of individuals who have taken with them my friendship and
sympathy, than perhaps from among any other sect or class of men.


and, apart from that, they deny that it may be regarded
as a legitimate source of enjoyment. In this I totally dis-
sent from them. It is a much more noble, because less
purely selfish, instinct, than hunger or thirst. It is an
instinct that entwines itself around the warmest feelings
and best affections of the heart ; and, though it differ
from hunger and thirst in this, that it may remain un-
gratified without causing death, I have yet to learn, that
because it is possible, it is therefore also desirable, to
mortify and repress it. I admit, to the Shakers, that in
the world, profligate and hypocritical as we see it, this in-
stinct is the source of infinite misery; perhaps even, on
the whole, of a balance of unhappiness : and I always
freely admit to them, that if I had to choose between the
life of the profligate man of the world and that of the
ascetic Shaker, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer
the latter. But, for admitting that the most social and
kindly of human instincts is sensual and degrading in
itself, I cannot. I think its influence moral, humanizing,
polishing, beneficent ; and that the social education of
no man or woman is fully completed without it. Its
mortification (though far less injurious than its excess)
is yet very mischievous. If it do not give birth to pee-
vishness, or melancholy, or incipient disease, or unnatu-
ral practices, at least it almost always freezes and stif-
fens the character, by checking the flow of its kindliest
emotions ; and not unfrequently gives to it a solitary, anti-
social, selfish stamp.

I deny the position of the Shaker, then, that the in-
stinct is justifiable (if, indeed, it be at all) only as neces-
sary to the reproduction of the species. It is justifiable,
in my view, just in as far as it makes man a happier and
a better being. It is justifiable, both as a source of tern-


perate enjoyment, and as a means by which the sexes
can mutually polish and improve each other.

If a Shaker has read my little book thus far, and can-
not reconcile his mind to this idea, he may as well shut
it at once. I found all my arguments on the position,
that the pleasure derived from this instinct, independent
of and totally distinct from, its ultimate object, the repro-
duction of our race, is good, proper, worth securing and
enjoying. I maintain, that its temperate enjoyment is
a blessing, both in itself and in its influence on human

Upon this distinction of the instinct into its two-fold
character, hinges the chief point in the present discus-
sion. It sometimes happens, nay, it happens every day
and hour, that mankind obey its impulses, not from any
calculation of consequences, but simply from animal im-
pulse. Thus many children that are brought into the
world owe their existence, not to deliberate conviction in
their parents that their birth was really desirable, but
simply to an unreasoning instinct, which men, in the
mass, have not learnt either to resist or control.

It is a serious question and surely an exceedingly
proper and important one whether man can obtain,
and whether he is benefited by obtaining, control over


To answer the questions satisfactorily, it would be ne-
cessary to substantiate, that such control may be obtain-
ed without the slightest injury to the physical health, or
violence to the moral feelings ; and also, that it should



be obtained without any real sacrifice of enjoyment ; or,
if that cannot be, with as little as possible.

Thus have I plainly stated the subject. It resolves it-
self, as my readers may observe, into two distinct heads :
first, the desirability of such control ; and, secondly, its

In discussing its desirability, I enter a wide field, a
field often traversed by political economists, by moralists,
and by philosophers, though generally, it will be con-
fessed, to little purpose. This maybe, in a great measure,
attributed rather to their fear than their ignorance. The
world would not permit them to say what they knew. I
intend that my readers shall know all that I know on
the subject; for I have long since ceased to ask the
world's leave to say what I think, and what I believe to
be useful to the public.

I propose to begin by considering the question in the
abstract, and then to examine it in its political and social




Is it in itself desirable, that man should obtain control
over the instinct of reproduction, so as to determine when
its gratification shall produce offspring, and when it shall

But that common sense is so scarce an article, and that
the various superstitions of the nursery pervade the
opinions and cramp the enquiries, even of after life but
for this, the very statement of the question might suffice
to obtain for it the assent of every rational being. No-
thing so elevates man above the brute creation, as the
power he obtains over his instincts. The lower animal
follows them blindly, unreflectingly. The serpent gorges
himself; the bull fights, even to death, with his rival of
the pasture; the dog makes deadly war for a bone.
They know nothing of progressive improvement. The
elephant or the beaver of the nineteenth century, are just
as wise, and no wiser, than the elephant or the beaver
of two thousand years ago. Man alone has the power to
improve, cultivate, elevate his nature, from generation to
generation. He alone can control his instincts by re-
flection of consequences, and regulate his passions by
the precepts of wisdom.

It is strange, that even at this period of the world, we


should have to remind each other, that all knowledge of
facts is useful ; or, at the least, cannot be injurious. The
knowledge of some facts may be unimportant; the
knowledge of none is mischievous. A human being is a
puppet a slave, if his ignorance is to be the safeguard of
his virtue. Nor shall we know where to stop, if we fol-
low up this principle. Shall we give our sons lessons in
mechanics ? but they may thereby learn to pick locks.
Shall we teach them to read? but they may thus obtain
access to falsehood and folly. Shall we instruct them in
writing ? but they may become forgers.

Such, in effect, .was the reasoning of men in the dark
ages. When Walter Scott puts in the mouth of Lord
Douglas, on the discovery of Marmion's treachery, the
following exclamation, it is strictly in accordance with
the spirit and prevailing opinions of the times :

" A letter forged ! Saint Jude to speed !
Did ever knight so foul a deed !
At first in heart it liked me ill,
When the king praised his clerkly skill.
Thanks to Saint Bothan, son of mine,
Save Gawain, ne'er could pen a line :
So swore I, and so swear I still,
Let my boy bishop fret his fill."

But the days are gone by when ignorance may be
the safeguard of virtue. The only rock-foundation for
virtue is knowledge. There is no fact, in physics or in
morals, that ought to be concealed from the enquiring
mind. Let that parent who thinks to secure his sons'
honesty or his daughters' innocence by keeping back
from them facts let that parent know, that he is build-
ing up their morality on a sandy foundation. The
rains and the floods of the world's influence shall beat
upon that virtue, and great shall be the fall thereof.

If man, then, can obtain control over this most in>


portant of instincts, it is, in principle, right that he
should know it. If men, after obtaining such know-
ledge, think fit not to use it ; if they deem it nobler and
more virtuous, to follow each animal impulse, like the
beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, without a
thought of its consequences, or an enquiry into its nature
then let them do so. The knowledge that they have
the power to act more like rational beings, will not in-
jure, if it fail to benefit them. They are at perfect liber*
ty to set it aside, to neglect it, to forget it, if they can.
Only let them show common sense enough to permit
that others, who are more slow to incur sacred responsi-
bilities, and more willing to give reason the control of in-
stinct, should obtain the requisite knowledge, and follow
out their prudent resolutions.

If this little book were in the hands of every adult in
the United States, not one need profit by it, unless he
sees fit. Nor will any man admit that he can possibly
be injured by it. Oh no. His virtue can bear any
quantity of light. But then, his neighbour's, or his
son's, or his daughter's !

This would lead me to discuss the social bearings of
the question. But, as conceiving it more in order, I
shall first speak of it in connexion with political economy.





The population question, as it is called, has of late
years occupied much attention, especially in Great Bri-
tain. It was first prominently brought forward and dis-
cussed, through two large volumes, by Malthus, an
English clergyman. Godwin, Ricardo, Thompson,
Place, Mill, and other celebrated cotemporary writers,
have all discussed it, with more or less reserve, and at
greater or less length.

Malthus' work has become the text book of a large
politico-economist party in England. His doctrine is,
that " population, unrestrained, will advance beyond
the means of subsistence" He asserts, that in most
countries population at this moment presses against the
means of subsistence ; and that, in all countries, it has a
tendency so to do. He recommends, as a preventive of
the growing evil, celibacy till a late age, say thirty years;
and he asserts, that unless this " moral restraint" is ex-
erted, vice, poverty and misery, will and must become
the checks to population. His book, in my opinion, has
done infinite mischief. I have heard his disciples open-
ly declare, that they considered the crimes and wretch-
edness of society to be necessary to be the express or-


dainings of Providence, intended to prevent the earth
from being over-peopled. I have heard it argued by
men of rank, wealth and influence, that the distinctions
of rich and poor, and even of morality and immorality,
of luxury and want, will and must exist to the end of
the world ; that he who attempts to remove them rights
against God and nature ; and, if he partially succeed,
will but afford the human race an opportunity to increase,
until the earth shall no longer suffice to contain them,
and they shall be compelled to prey on each other. It
must be confessed, that this is a comfortable doctrine for
the rich idler : it is a healing salve to the luxurious con-
science ; an opiate to drown the still small voice of truth
and humanity, which calls to every man to be up and do
his part towards the alleviation of the human suffering
that every where stares him in the face.

It is vain to argue with these defenders of the evils
that be, that the day of overstocking is afar off. They
tell you, it must come at last ; and that the more you do
to remove vice and misery those destroyers of popula-
tion the sooner it will come. And what reply can one
make to the argument in the abstract ? I believe it to
be proved, that population, unrestrained,* will double itself
on an average every twenty-five to fifty years. If so, it
is evident to a demonstration, that, if population be not
restrained, morally or immorally, the earth will at last
furnish no foothold for the human beings that will
cover it.

Take a medium calculation as to the natural rate of

* By unrestrained, Malthus and his disciples mean, not restricted or
destroyed by any incidental check whatever, moral or immoral, pruden-
tial or violent. Thus, poverty, war, libertinism, famine, &c. are all
powerful checks to population. In this sense, and not simply as ap-
plying to preventative moral restraint, have I employed the word through-
out this chapter.


increase, and say, that population, unrestrained, will
double itself every thirty-three and a third years. That
it has done so, (without reckoning the increase from emi-
gration,) in many parts of this continent, is certain.

Then, if we suppose the present numerous checks to
population, viz. want, war, vice, and misery, removed
by rational reform, and if we assume the present popu-
lation of the world at one thousand millions, we shall
find the rate of increase as follows :

At the end of 100 years, there will be 8,000 millions.

200 , 64,000

300 512 000

400 4,096,000

500 32,768,000

And so on, multiplying by 8 for every additional hundred
years. So that, in 500 years, there would be more than
thirty thousand times as many as at present : and in
1000 years, upwards of a thousand million times as
many human beings as at this moment : consequently,
one single pair, if suffered to increase without check,
would, in 1000 years, increase to more than double the
present population of the globe.

It appears evident, then, to a demonstration, that popu-
lation CANNOT be suffered to increase unrestrained for
more than a very few hundred years. We are thus com-
pelled to admit to Malthus, that, sooner or later, some
restraint or other to population must be employed ; and
compelled to admit to his aristocratic disciples, that if no
other better restraint than vice and misery can be found,
then vice and misery must be ; they are the lot of man,
from generation to generation.

Let me repeat it : it is no question never can be a
question whether there shall be a restraint to popula-
tion or not. There MUST be ; unless indeed we find the
means of visiting other planets, so as to people them. In


the nature of things, there must be a check, of some
kind, at some time. The only question is, what that
check shall be whether, as heretofore, the check of
war, want, profligacy, misery ; or a " moral restraint/'
sanctioned by reason and suggested by experience.

Let those, then, who cry out against this little treatise,
be told, that though they may postpone the question, no
human power can evade it. It must come up. Had
the friends of reform been left to choose their own time,
it might, perhaps with advantage, have been postponed.
And it is an imaginable case, that prejudice might delay
it until a general famine or a universal civil war became
the frightful checks. But will any man of common
sense argue the propriety of suffering such a crisis to
approach ?

Malthus saw this. He saw that some check must
exist ; and, whatever some of his disciples might per-
mit themselves to say, he did not choose to be consi-
dered the apologist of vice and misery. His theory,
indeed, supplied specious arguments to those who as-
serted, with the ingenious author of the Fable of the
Bees,* that " private vices are public benefits ;" and in
consequence, its tendency appears, to me essentially aris-
tocratic and demoralizing, as tending to produce supine
contentment with a vicious and degrading order of things.
But Malthus himself declares the only proper check to
be, the general practice of celibacy to a late age. He
employs all his eloquence to persuade men and women
that they ought not to marry till they are twenty-eight
or thirty ; and that, if they do, they are contributing to
the misery of the world.t

* Mandeville.

t Some wag, adverting to the fact, that Mr. Malthus himself has a
large family, remarked, " that the reverend gentleman knew better how
to preach than to practise."



Now, Mr. Malthus may preach for ever on this subject*
Individuals may indeed be found, who will look to distant
consequences, and sacrifice present enjoyment ; even as
individuals are found to become and remain Shaking
Quakers : but to believe that the mass of mankind will
abjure, through the ten fairest years of life, the nearest
and dearest of social relations ; and during the very holi-
day of existence, will live the life of monks and nuns-
all to avert a catastrophe which is confessedly some hun-
dreds of years distant to believe this, requires a faith
which no accurate observer of mankind possesses.

This weak point the aristocratic expounders of Mal-
thus' doctrines were not slow to discover. They broadly
asserted, that such " moral restraint" would never be
generally practised. They asked, whether a young
woman, to whom a comfortable home and a pleasant
companion were offered, would refuse to accept them, on
this theory of population ; whether a young man who
had a fair (or even but a very indifferent) prospect of
maintaining a family, would doom himself to celibacy
lest the world should be overpeopled. And they put it
to the advocates of late marriages, whether, in one sex
at least, the recommendation, if even .nominally folio wed,
would not almost certainly lead to vicious excess and de-
grading associations ; thus resolving the check into vice
and misery at last. If experience answered these ques-
tions in the negative, was it not clear, (they would ex-
ultingly ask,) that vice and misery are the natural lot of
man ; and that it is quixotic, if not impious, to plague
ourselves about them, or to attempt, by their suppression,
to controvert the decrees of God 1

It was very easy for generous feelings to reply to so
heartless an argument. It was easy to ask, whether


fcven the apparent hopelessness of the case formed any
legitimate apology for supine indifference ; or whether,
where we cannot cure, we are absolved from the duty of
alleviating. But it was not very easy fully and fairly to
meet the question. It was idle to deny that preaching
would not put off marriage for ten years : and if no other
species of moral restraint than ten years Shakerism could
be proposed, it did appear evident enough, that moral re*
straint would be by the mass neglected, and that the phy-
sical checks of vice and misery must come into play at

I pray my readers, then, distinctly to observe how the
matter stands. Population, unrestrained, must increase
beyond the possibility of the earth and its produce to sup-
port. At present it is restrained by vice and misery.
The only remedy which the orthodoxy of the English
clergyman permits him to propose, is, late marriages.
The most enlightened observers of mankind are agreed,
that nothing contributes so positively and immediately to
demoralize a nation, as when its youth refrain, until a
late period, from forming disinterested connexions with
those of the other sex. The frightful increase of pros-
titutes, the destruction of health, the rapid spread of in-
temperance, the ruin of moral feelings, are, to the mass,
the certain consequences. Individuals there are, who
escape the contagion ; individuals whose better feelings
revolt, under any temptation, from the mercenary em-
brace, or the Circean cup of intoxication; but these are
exceptions only. The mass must have their pleasures ;
the pleasures of intellectual intercourse, of unbought af-
fection, and of good taste and good feeling, if they can ;
but if they cannot, then such pleasures (alas ! that lan-
guage should be perverted to entitle them to the name !)


as the sacrifice of money and the ruin of body and mind
can purchase.*

But this is not all. Not only is Malthus' proposition
fraught with immorality, in that it discountenances to a
late age those disinterested sexual connexions which can
alone save youth from vice ; but it is impracticable.
Men and women will scarcely pause to calculate the
chances they have of affording support to their children
ere they become parents : how, then, should they stop
to calculate the chances of the world's being overpeopled?
Malthus may say what he pleases, they never will make
any such calculation ; and it is folly to expect they

Let us observe, then : unless some less ascetic a?id
more practicable species of " moral restraint''' 1 be in-
troduced, vice and misery will ultimately become the
inevitable lot of man upon earth. He can no more
escape them, than he can the light of the sun, or the
stroke of death.

What an incitement, this, to the prosecution of our en-
quiry ! Here is a principle set up, which is all but an
apology for the aojathy that prevails among the rich and
the powerful among governors and legislators in re-
gard to human improvement. How important, how es-
sential for the interests of virtue, that it should be re-
futed ! How beneficent that knowledge, which discloses
to us some moral, practicable check to population, and
relieves us from the despairing conclusion, that the irrevo-
cable doom of man is misery, without remedy and without
end ! In the absence of such knowledge, truly the pros-
pects of the world were dark and cheerless. The modern

* Lawrence, the ingenious author of the " Empire of the Nairs,'* 1
says shrewdly enough, " Wherever the women are prudes, the men, wUi
be drunkards*"


doctrine of population has weighed like a spell on the
exertions of benevolence, and chilled, almost to inaction,
even the warm heart of charity. Philanthropy herself
pauses, when she begins to fear that all her exertions
are to result in hopeless disappointment. And yet
such is this world even the ablest opponents of Malthus
stop short when they come to the question, and leave an
argument unanswered, which a dozen pages might suffice
for ever to set at rest.

Let one of the most intelligent of these opponents, a
man of splendid and sterling talent let MILL, the cele-
brated political economist and talented author of " British
India," speak for himself.

I extract from the article " Colony," in the supplement
to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and which is from the
pen of Mill, the following paragraph :

" What are the best means of checking the progress

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Online LibraryRobert Dale OwenMoral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question → online text (page 2 of 7)