Swift’s central argument in A Modest Proposal is that children should not eternally remain the financial burden of their parents, and that the people and government of Ireland should take steps to ensure that children do not become beggars, but rather productive members of society. It is a satirical piece because Swift sardonically suggests that the vast majority of Irish children should be used to make stews and ragu and their skin should be used to produce clothing.
The use of pathos in his work is conveyed whenever he attempts to convince his reader of this argument not by reference to logic or facts, but rather through the passion and emotionality of his writing itself. For example, early in the essay, he says,
whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
The use of the words “deserve” and the imagery he evokes of heroism—the fulfillment of his wishes honored with the erection of a statue—are examples of the use of pathos in his writing.
One of the sharpest barbs in Swift’s essay comes toward the end, when he rejects any possible exceptions to his proposal for reducing the population. Eating children is obviously reprehensible, but Swift playfully promotes it as Ireland’s last resort. He goes on to say that one should not bother him with alternative, reasonable solutions to Ireland’s population problem, such as
Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance ...
Swift goes on to say that, though these solutions are prudent, the Irish people have never had enough conviction to put them into practice. As he says,
Therefore, I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.
The irony here that Swift is pointing out is that by this point in history, his almost seems to be a more likely scenario (the eating of children and turning them into leather) to be used to control the population than these other, more reasonable—and obviously preferable—methods. Because Ireland has never been willing to implement the moderate and healthy, the only option left is the extreme and macabre. Swift’s utter rejection of Ireland’s ability to engage in population reform via civilized means is a form of sardonic pathos. Obviously, he does not really believe that wealthy Irish families should start eating the children of peasants. He is using emotive language and extreme imagery to point out Ireland’s failure to intelligently deal with a serious social issue.