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Misinterpreting Malthus or: The Conjurer Who Killed A Street Urchin

July 24, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.

With its lightning elemental powered trains and Drow that prefer scorpions to spiders, Eberron is a pretty weird setting. It’s also home to one of my stranger campaigns.

I’m sure my initial plans for the game had involved something drawing on one of the several mysteries built into the campaign setting, following its devastating one hundred year war. Or possibly even something influenced by the air of political intrigue that permeates the setting. However… well, I’m not really sure what happened.

Between a cast of characters that consisted of a Warforged who combined several prestige classes that clearly were not playtested in relation to each other, a Dwarven Psychic Monk, a Gnome Cleric who was eventually turned into a wand by the Warforged Artificer, a Wizard obsessed with conquering the minds of others, and a Wizard played by Vinny (yes, the same Vinny), and my own willingness to play toward humor… well, things got pretty weird.

Truly the weirdest and most memorable moment occurred in the Lhazaar Principalities, and of course involved Vinny’s Conjurer.

The PCs had been hired by the remaining Prince of Cyre, a nation destroyed at the end of The Last War, to essentially determine what had happened to his nation and if there was any way for him to reclaim it for all of the refugees under his banner. For a reason I cannot recall, this quest had brought them to the loosely aligned nation of the Lhazaar Principalities. The Lhazaar Principalities are a nation essentially composed of raiders and pirates. Imagine if the Caribbean had been completely controlled by pirates during the age of sail, add magic, and you’ll sort of understand what the area is like.

I personally enlarged the town of Regalport to be a larger and more bustling city from its modest status as a large town. It’s home to the most powerful of the Lhazaar Princes, one of the Great Houses from across Eberron (plus two major outposts of other Houses), as well as the largest market in the east, so I felt it deserved more than “Large Town,” status. This resulted in a seaside stronghold for the Prince, and a tightly packed collection of buildings with markets filling any street wide enough. An increase in population also brought with it an underbelly of the poor; people barely making a living as longshoremen, orphaned children, and so on.

After getting a feel for the city, and seeing the plight brought on by the burden of overpopulation, the party Conjurer, decided to do what he could to help. He sought an urchin to give him the lay of the land in terms of the poor of the city, and realizing that illness was a common problem amongst them, since they unable to afford adequate housing, nutrition, and healthcare. Seeing that the urchin himself was sick, he offered the urchin a potion to cure his ills.

I was impressed, it seemed a very heartfelt moment, a great adventurer taking his time out to help a poor street urchin. We all then paused, realizing that the Conjurer didn’t have any Remove Disease potions. I then ruled that a potion of Cure Light Wounds would suffice for the purpose of kindness. The Conjurer didn’t have any cure light wounds potions either.

He decided to ‘ease the child’s suffering,’ by giving him a dose of Alchemist’s Frost. The child then died an excruciating death. The Conjurer then went on to deliver wagons full of dangerous Alchemical potions to the city’s poor, under the pretense of alleviating their suffering.

Obviously, we were all horrified.

The Conjurer was eventually captured, and an attempt to free him by the rest of the party (not knowing why he was in jail), resulted in them being thrown in jail as well. It was then revealed they had placed their cleric in a bag of holding (something they actually did when the player couldn’t attend the session) and they were considered the most heinous creatures to ever land in a city filled to the brim with pirates of the “Your gold or your death,” type.

What’s interesting is the way that the Conjurer defended his actions. It was, according to his own defense, an attempt to basically give them the gift of mercy. They would die here and be spared their miserable existence and be able to go on into the afterlife. The further decrease in excess population may allow for more steady work, and more available resources, for those that lived. Anyone who lived through the dosing of the alchemist’s fire was clearly strong enough to live through their hardships.

Essentially it was the barest form of Social Darwinism and a disturbing misinterpretation of Malthusian economics.

All of this raises the tough question of whether or not such mathematics are immoral or not.

As the world finds itself standing upon Zanzibar, as it were, we are beginning to face this question of resources vs population.

Going back to Malthus, it’s important to understand that he didn’t believe in doing what the Conjurer did. Humans, by their very nature, create some of the more active population checks because of our propensity toward violence. Overpopulation by its very nature creates issues like famine, and disease that wipe populations out.

Malthus argued that the best way to combat overpopulation would be willing abstinence. Since it was obvious even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that abstinence would not work amongst the wider population, birth control was suggested. While he didn’t have the science in the early 19th century, obviously Malthus would have approved of condoms, the birth control pill, and even things like the morning after pill.

However, it still turns back to the question of whether or not it’s moral to control population.

We do make arguments for mercy and the alleviation of suffering when people talk of assisted suicide, abortion, and euthanasia (ie pulling the plug on a coma patient). Yet these cases are always on the smaller scale, they’re personal. In other words, they’re within the grasp of a human’s ability to conceptualize and understand what is happening.

When we enlarge the argument, it becomes difficult to grasp. Even when it is so large as to become a statistic, we have trouble comprehending the idea that that many people are suffering so terribly. It is a horrific statistic, but it is a statistic, and it is easier to live with that statistic.

Translating that statistic into one of euthanasia is even more horrifying.

Dropping away the misinterpretation of Malthus, that we should create a new positive check against overpopulation, we turn back to his own views toward birth control. The moral choice, at least according to Malthus, would be to abstain from sex and abstain from having a child. If you become pregnant, the solution would be to abort it. On the human scale, it sounds heinous to suggest, but when taken on the larger scale of society it has an eerie functionality.

Of course, this is where we really get to the heart of the issue.

One of my college professors once suggested, on the subject of aborting a child to alleviate the grand suffering of the population, “Now that’s starting to sound like population control… and that’s fucking creepy.”

On the surface, the concept of limiting the population makes sense. For the benefit of all, the population must be curbed. Take a look at the One Child Policy of China, it exists for a distinct reason, and in theory has helped to achieve its goal, yet along with it has come a number of unforseen issues such as the gender imbalance. However, the very concept of the One Child Policy makes people’s skin crawl. The idea that it would be morally right to control population doesn’t seem… well, right. Controlling population, after all, has formed the basis of dystopic fiction, and will presumably continue to do so.

Yet, as we move into a future where natural resources are dwindling, we have to ask ourselves how we can deal with these issues.

It’s also terrifying to think that there may very well be Malthus’s positive checks on the horizon. Antibiotics, which have wound themselves into so much of the first world (our bodies, the food we eat, our cleaning supplies), do become less effective because bacteria mutate far faster than we do. There is often talk of the Antibiotic Horizon in which they just stop working. Of course, medical science is already trying to work around this, so perhaps the Horizon is merely nightmare fuel for science fiction authors but it makes one wonder.

It all begs us to ask questions about population, and mercy…

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