The Irish poor law debate of the 1830s has largely been overlooked, but is a substantial source in understanding the impact of social theory concerning ‘virtue’ on social policy making in the early nineteenth century and on into the present time. The Chair of the Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (1833–36) was the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, a leading figure in intellectual endeavour in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although his contributions to theology, economics and education have been reassessed, his central role in poor law thought is not well understood. This article examines the key tenets of his social theory and reassesses their impact on the Irish poor law debate. Whately was an Oxford Noetic (Greek for ‘reasoners’) committed to merging the study of natural theology and political economy in order to encourage ever greater levels of virtue on individual and societal levels. He believed that individual and social lives were designed to advance through the reciprocal exchange of labour, goods and ideas in a free and open market economy. Ireland in the 1830s presented the ideal opportunity for Whately to express his theory of moral growth and social advance in terms of poor law policy, directed towards modifying circumstances to make possible the development of individual abilities while avoiding measures which would encourage vice or discourage virtue.