The Vanity of the Philosopher — Part 1

Happiness, Progress and the “Vanity of the Philosopher” Part 1

philosophesBy Sandra J. Peart and David M. Levy



“Darwin developed “natural selection” as Malthusianism for agents without foresight. While this was harmless when applied to crabs, crabgrass and finches, it had tragic consequences when applied to human beings….”

Adam Smith believed that individuals were basically the same in their ability to make choices in the light of the predicted consequences of their actions. Observed differences in choices were then the result of history, luck and incentives. Everyone, rich and poor, was capable of deciding what sort of work to do, when to marry, and how many children to have. Neither the rich, nor the educated, should interfere with these choices.

Smith opposed the view that there were “experts” whose wisdom was inherently better than that of regular individuals. He held that only the division of labor—not a superior intellect—separated the philosopher and the street porter. In Smith’s view, the goals of the street porter and the philosopher were equally worth pursuing, and the philosopher and the street porter were equally capable of making decisions in their own self-interest, foreseeing the consequences of their own decisions, learning from their mistakes and pursuing their own happiness as each understood it.

One area where the tension between these differing views on whether everyday people can manage their lives comes to the fore is population growth and the state’s role in contraception and reproductive policy. Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus believed that individuals had foresight and were aware of the consequences of their actions for the future.

From Adam Smith:

“The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.” Adam Smith (1776, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 2 par. 4).

But scientists, particularly biologists, who came after Smith and Malthus, took a different view. They argued instead that since the rich would limit their numbers but the poor would not, the general good would not be served by general access to contraceptive information. If the rich were naturally superior, while the poor were inferior, uncontrolled access to happiness, contraceptive information, might serve to degrade the race and thus to reduce the general good. The rich would avail themselves of artificial means of contraception while the poor would fail to do so, and the human race would become increasingly populated by the inferior and myopic poor people.

In this essay we explore the contrasting positions of Classical economists and later biologists on foresight, competition and the perfectibility of man. Classical economics and Darwinian natural selection are fundamentally different. Both are built on the foundation of competition, but they differ on the issue of foresight. Classical economics supposed agents with foresight. Darwin knew Malthus’s theory well and yet he developed “natural selection” as Malthusianism for agents without foresight. While this was harmless, indeed appropriate, when applied to crabs, crabgrass and finches, it had tragic consequences when applied to human beings by Darwin and those who came after him.

Smith on Population

Smith saw population growth resulting from foresight and planning; people were capable of understanding and acting upon their interests without the direction by the richer, the more powerful, or the intellectual. He explained that since children were more valuable in America than Europe, people had larger families in America:

But though North America is not yet so rich as England, it is much more thriving, and advancing with much greater rapidity to the further acquisition of riches. The most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants. [Wealth of Nations, Bk. I, ch. 8, par. 23.]

American experience suggests that a human population can double in 25 years or less:

In Great Britain, and most other European countries, they are not supposed to double in less than five hundred years. In the British colonies in North America, it has been found, that they double in twenty or five-and-twenty years. Nor in the present times is this increase principally owing to the continual importation of new inhabitants, but to the great multiplication of the species. Those who live to old age, it is said, frequently see there from fifty to a hundred, and sometimes many more, descendants from their own body. [Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 8, par 23.]

Smith explained the explosive growth in population as a rational response by individuals to the incentives they face:

Labour is there so well rewarded that a numerous family of children, instead of being a burthen is a source of opulence and prosperity to the parents. The labour of each child, before it can leave their house, is computed to be worth a hundred pounds clear gain to them. A young widow with four or five young children, who, among the middling or inferior ranks of people in Europe, would have so little chance for a second husband, is there frequently courted as a sort of fortune. The value of children is the greatest of all encouragements to marriage. We cannot, therefore, wonder that the people in North America should generally marry very young. (Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter 8, par. 23)

His cheerful picture of American experience is contrasted with his gloomier picture of Europe, where children impose a greater cost upon their parents. The key point is that in Smith’s view of the world, which as we shall see Malthus followed, incentives and foresight explained the differences between America and Europe, not some exogenous, immutable force. Yet many writers have mischaracterized Malthus. The problem began with Darwin as we show below.

Malthus and Foresight

 Adam Smith has told us that proverbs are summaries of universal experience. These represent the codified understanding of ordinary people. In his Moral Sentiments we find that proverbial wisdom, as founded on “universal experience”, comes as close to “truth” as possible. Here is Smith’s account of the nice properties of proverbial wisdom:

The general rules of almost all the virtues, the general rules which determine what are the offices of prudence, of charity, of generosity, of gratitude, of friendship, are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them. The common proverbial maxims of prudence, being founded in universal experience, are perhaps the best general rules which can be given about it. To affect, however, a very strict and literal adherence to them would evidently be the most absurd and ridiculous pedantry. (1759, III.I par. 121.)

Malthus also recognized that the agents about whom he wrote have theories or beliefs of their own: people can foresee the misery attendant on an overly large family and they take that into account when they decide to marry. In one remarkable passage Malthus explains that the foresight of ordinary people is an attempt to unwrap the regularities of nature. Because of these regularities, people are both able and willing to work and plan:1

The constancy of the laws of nature, or the certainty, with which we may expect the same effect, from the same causes, is the foundation of the faculty of reason. If in the ordinary course of things, the finger of God were frequently visible; or to speak more correctly, if God were frequently to change his purpose, (for the finger of God is, indeed, visible in every blade of grass that we see) a general and fatal torpor of the human faculties would probably ensue; even the bodily wants of mankind would cease to stimulate them to exertion, could they not reasonably expect, that if their efforts were well directed, they would be crowned with success. The constancy of the laws of nature, is the foundation of the industry and foresight of the husbandman; the indefatigable ingenuity of the artificer; the skilful researches of the physician, and anatomist; and the watchful observation, and patient investigation, of the natural philosopher. To this constancy we owe all the greatest, and noblest efforts of intellect. To this constancy we owe the immortal mind of a Newton. (Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st edition, 1798, Chapter XVIII, par. 10)

Thus, for Malthus, at foundation there is no difference between the foresight of the ordinary person and the activity of the greatest of all natural philosophers, Newton. The ordinary person’s wisdom takes proverbial form so that others might profit from it.

Malthus appreciated that “prudential restraint from marriage” might serve to delay the age at marriage and to reduce population growth from its maximum rate. How would ordinary people know to delay age at marriage? They come to appreciate the costs associated with having children and, having gained this insight, they come to realize that they can avoid the misery that results from an overly large family. Malthus explained the relationship between “prudential restraint from marriage” and “foresight” in the 1st edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population:

An intimate view of the state of society in any one country in Europe, which may serve equally for all, will enable us to answer this question, and to say, that a foresight of the difficulties attending the rearing of a family acts as a preventive check; and the actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children, act as a positive check, to the natural increase of population. Malthus (1798, Chapter IV, par. 7.)

Malthus’s recommendation, both in the 1st edition of his Essay and in all the later versions, was to trust people’s ability to foresee the consequences of their actions and not to bribe or nag them into imprudent marriages.

Malthus recognized that people might on occasion lack foresight. He found the reason for this in the insecurity of property and despotic government that serve to attenuate the development of foresight:

The same may be said of the once flourishing and populous country of Egypt. Its present depressed state has not been caused by the weakening of the principle of increase, but by the weakening of the principle of industry and foresight, from the insecurity of property consequent on a most tyrannical and oppressive government. The principle of increase in Egypt at present does all that is possible for it to do. It keeps the population fully up to the level of the means of subsistence; and, were its power ten times greater than it really is, it could do no more. (1826, Sixth edition, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Book I, Chapter VIII, par. 30)

Malthus’s views here are in keeping with the Classical economists’ aversion to the vulgarity of racial explanations for the failure of societies to develop.2

Malthus Misunderstood: Darwin Re-interprets Malthus

Malthus held that people possess the capacity for foresight and make prudential decisions in the light of the consequences they foresee. But one of the more prevalent misunderstandings in the history of economic ideas, has Malthus’s views as the exact opposite, whereby population growth leads to death and misery. In this caricature, Malthus makes Darwin’s case that people will fail to see and take account of the consequences of their decisions to marry. Thus it is a commonplace to suggest that the essence of Malthus’s argument—unlike that of Smith—was to suggest that people will always overpopulate, regardless of the incentives in place. In this account—but not ours—Malthus’s prediction was that the standard of living of the working class is fixed at a subsistence level. The idea is that Malthus supposedly understood that people have children without regard to the consequence of doing so. Hence, if their wages were to rise, the ensuing increase in population would soon return wages to their subsistence level. One of the hardiest myths of economics is that the “dismal science” label applied to 19th century political economy because of Malthus’s purported prediction about working class living standards.

Darwin explicitly stated that his principle of “natural selection” was the Malthusian principle for agents without foresight.

It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.3

If some individuals are no different from apes in their ability to look to the future and anticipate the consequences of choice and action, then human decisions are flawed and will fail to advance happiness. This theory of human behavior opens the door to a virtuous paternalism where experts know what is in the interest of the lower classes.

By removing foresight from the analysis of human action, Darwin converted people from self-motivated individuals searching for happiness into chess pieces (or cattle) for experts to manipulate. In the accounts that followed Darwin, Classical political economy became nothing more than what has been called “social Darwinism.” The result was a social Darwinism that quite ironically came to trace its heritage to Malthus.

This identification of Classical political economy with social Darwinism is a commonplace that characterizes many contemporary accounts of “competition”. “Competition” is competition for survival, literally speaking, and only the strongest survive. There is no way out of this situation; economics is deservedly “dismal”. This is the awful sense in which the competitive mechanism in Classical economics is said to be the forerunner of Darwinian biology. In this interpretation, Malthusian theory is simply Darwin’s “natural selection” without inheritance.

It is something of a commonplace that the mechanism of competition that underscores Classical economic analysis is the intellectual forerunner to the principle of natural selection in biology. So, the idea of natural selection is said to have emerged from and be consistent with the enterprise of Classical economics. Sometimes the parallel is drawn without regard to historical context—the same process of natural selection is said to characterize the biological and the economic world. Here is a version from the great popularizer, Steven Jay Gould:

Individual organisms engaged in the “struggle for existence” act as the analog of firms in competition. Reproductive success becomes the analog of profit—for, even more than in human economics, you cannot take it with you in nature.4

Gould’s statement is helpful because he has cast the issue in terms of the survival of firms as opposed to people. Firms can “die” without the firm’s owners dying. Gould is silent about whether the firms’ owners might learn from their failure and obtain clearer foresight in their pursuit of happiness.

A major conclusion that emerges from our analysis, however, is that the Classical economics and Darwinian natural selection are fundamentally different, and the difference turns precisely on the issue of foresight. Classical economics presupposed agents with foresight, while natural selection obtained for agents without it.

Conclusion: Happiness Versus Progress

In an important sense, Malthus’ population theory is a plea for theorists to trust the agent’s own understanding of his place in the world. Malthus’ agents have theories, and Malthus pleads with the political powers to stop tempting poor people to neglect their own foresight of the consequences of their actions. Malthus’ own understanding of the world matches the theories of the inside acting agents when they have been allowed the freedom to take responsibility for their own actions. But this agreement, between the theory of the “expert” and the “subject” is rare.

Late in the nineteenth century, when natural selection was applied to humans, a sustained conflict occurred between the theory of the scientists (post Classical economists and socio-biologists) and those of the agents under study. Then, the expert scientist came to believe he could specify and direct society to become more “civilized”, to “progress“, where progress became identified with human improvement as defined by the outside expert. Such direction, the experts explicitly acknowledged, required some sacrifice of agents’ happiness—all to be outweighed by the resulting improvement in human civilization. “Happiness” came into conflict with “progress” late in the century because the outside theorist supposed that his understanding of the people he studied was superior to theirs. His theories, and not theirs, ought to be trusted.

This is the awful consequence of the “vanity” that Smith warned us about. As “good” came to be disconnected from people’s revealed choices of “happiness“, the issue of whether the scientist constructed “good” from outside his subjects’ world, or inside it, became paramount.

When Darwin turned to consider how natural selection applies to animals, he explicitly attacked the utilitarian focus on happiness. He suggested that happiness be replaced with the norm of perfection of the race:

In the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species. The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable, if found practicable, to use the same definition in both cases, and to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation on account of political ethics. [Emphasis added.]5

Essentially, Darwin was saying that individuals could not be trusted to do the right thing for themselves or for the future of the human race. By pursuing their own selfish well-being as they saw it, they would end up harming the community by their inability to foresee the consequences of their decisions. Happiness would stand in the way of progress. This interpretation of human action stands in direct contrast to Malthus’s view and to Smith’s concept of the Invisible Hand where individual self-interest served the community.

How can these two views of human choice and action be reconciled? The key is foresight. If individuals are as myopic as a clam or an oak tree, then they cannot be trusted to make wise decisions either for themselves or the human race as a whole. Those decisions must instead be made by a narrow class of experts, theorists and scientists of superior intellect and knowledge of how the world actually works. In particular, certain classes and races could not be trusted. By ignoring foresight, Darwin opened the door for social Darwinism. But this arrogant view of one’s fellow human beings was a corruption of the theories of Classical political economy, a corruption where ignorant inferiors were harmed rather than helped by competition and incentives.

The norm of racial perfection suggests that access to information that affects the decision to have children will play a key role in the broader debate over happiness vs. progress. In a future article, we will consider how the debate culminated in the opposing views on contraception advanced by John Stuart Mill and Darwin that were featured at the trial of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in 1877 for distributing birth control material.



  1. Malthus is responding to William Godwin’s Political Justice,in which Godwin argued that the institution of property causes inequality and then “proverbial” “wretchedness”, as the poor are unable and unwilling to reduce their family size:

First then it is to be observed, that, in the most refined states of Europe, the inequality of property has arisen to an alarming height. Vast numbers of their inhabitants are deprived of almost every accommodation that can render life tolerable or secure. Their utmost industry scarcely suffices for their support. The women and children lean with an insupportable weight upon the efforts of the man, so that a large family has in the lower order of life become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. If sickness or some of those casualties which are perpetually incident to an active and laborious life, be superadded to these burthens, the distress is yet greater. William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, [1793], p. 34.

  1. Our first series of articles documents the color-blind theorizing of the Classical political economists.
  2. Charles Darwin [1859]. On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, [1859] 1964, p. 63.
  3. Stephen Jay Gould, 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 123.
  4. Charles Darwin [1871] The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.Volumes 21-2 of The Works of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett & R. B. Freeman. Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1989, p. 125.


* Sandra J. Peart is professor of economics, Baldwin-Wallace College, and Director of the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics. Her email address is

* David M. Levy is professor of economics, George Mason University, and Director of the Center for the Study of Public Choice. His email address is

Peart/Levy’s book is, “Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics,”  from the University of Michigan Press.

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