There were of course different interpretations of what constituted progress: Rousseau, Voltaire, and later Marx all had their ideas about it. One such theorist concerning the best means for improving the lot of all men was Thomas Malthus. His philosophy on the nature of man would later have a profound effect on English policy and attitudes toward Ireland.
Malthus did not share in the absolutist claim that all men were equal as was the case with so many Enlightenment thinkers. But he did value man’s capacity for reason which means that he was certainly a man of his time. According to Malthus, humans stood apart from animals because of their possession of “reason and will.” “[Man] is motivated by his physical needs (necessity for food and shelter), ‘the passion between the sexes’ (love, and the ‘desire to possess a beautiful woman’), and the principles of self-love and benevolence” (Simons 1955, 61). It was that latter trait that Malthus most highlighted. Self-interest drives men to seek what they want, to work, and to reproduce. Mixed with the carnal impulses, this presented the very thing which governments must appeal to in order to enact effective social and economic policy.
Malthus’ economic philosophy has often been summarized as being inhumane and indifferent to society’s poor. Many during his time believed that the advances being made in the sciences would contribute to a constant betterment of the plight of the poor and thus to the general progress of man. In his famous Essay Malthus said that an increase in food production would lead to a growth of population which would eventually become unsustainable and thus lead to collapse and chaos. “[M]arshes had been drained by the score in Ireland, with a consequent growth of population and no lessening of the pressure on resources” (Petersen 1979, 473). In order to confront this reality, Malthus proposed