Casuistry (/ˈkæʒuɪstri/) is a method in applied ethics and
jurisprudence, often characterised as a critique of principle- or
rule-based reasoning. The word "casuistry" is derived from the
Latin casus (meaning "case").
Casuistry is reasoning used to resolve moral problems by extracting or
extending theoretical rules from particular instances and applying
these rules to new instances. The term is also commonly used as a
pejorative to criticize the use of clever but unsound reasoning
(alleging implicitly the inconsistent—or outright
specious—application of rule to instance), especially in relation to
moral questions (see sophistry).
The agreed meaning of "casuistry" is in flux. The term can be used
either to describe a presumably acceptable form of reasoning or a form
of reasoning that is inherently unsound and deceptive. Most or all
philosophical dictionaries list the neutral sense as the first or only
definition. On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary
states that the word "[o]ften (and perhaps originally) applied to a
quibbling or evasive way of dealing with difficult cases of duty." Its
textual references, except for certain technical usages, are
consistently pejorative (eg. "
Casuistry destroys by Distinctions and
Exceptions, all Morality, and effaces the essential Difference between
Right and Wrong").
5 Early modern times
6 Modern times
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
While a principle-based approach might claim that lying is always
morally wrong, the casuist would argue that, depending upon the
details of the case, lying might or might not be illegal or unethical.
The casuist might conclude that a person is wrong to lie in legal
testimony under oath, but might argue that lying actually is the best
moral choice if the lie saves a life. (
Thomas Sanchez and others thus
theorized a doctrine of mental reservation, which developed into its
own branch of casuistry.) For the casuist, the circumstances of a case
are essential for evaluating the proper response.
Typically, casuistic reasoning begins with a clear-cut paradigmatic
case. In legal reasoning, for example, this might be a precedent case,
such as premeditated murder. From it, the casuist would ask how
closely the given case currently under consideration matches the
paradigmatic case. Cases like the paradigmatic case ought to be
treated likewise; cases unlike the paradigm ought to be treated
differently. Thus, a man is properly charged with premeditated murder
if the circumstances surrounding his case closely resemble the
exemplary premeditated murder case. The less a given case is like the
paradigm, the weaker the justification is for treating that case like
the paradigmatic case.
Casuistry is a method of case reasoning especially useful in treating
cases that involve moral dilemmas. It is also a branch of applied
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Casuistry takes a relentlessly practical approach to morality. Rather
than using theories as starting points, casuistry begins with an
examination of cases. By drawing parallels between paradigms, or
so-called "pure cases", and the case at hand, a casuist tries to
determine a moral response appropriate to a particular case.
Casuistry has been described as "theory modest" (Arras, see below).
One of the strengths of casuistry is that it does not begin with, nor
does it overemphasize, theoretical issues. It does not require
practitioners to agree about ethical theories or evaluations before
making policy. Instead, they can agree that certain paradigms should
be treated in certain ways, and then agree on the similarities, the
so-called warrants between a paradigm and the case at hand.
Since most people, and most cultures, substantially agree about most
pure ethical situations, casuistry often creates ethical arguments
that can persuade people of different ethnic, religious and
philosophical beliefs to treat particular cases in the same ways. For
this reason, casuistry is widely considered to be the basis for the
English common law and its derivatives.
Casuistry is prone to abuses wherever the analogies between cases are
Casuistry dates from
Aristotle (384–322 BC), yet the zenith of
casuistry was from 1550 to 1650, when the
Society of Jesus
Society of Jesus used
case-based reasoning, particularly in administering the Sacrament of
Penance (or "confession"). The term casuistry quickly became
pejorative with Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of casuistry. In
Provincial Letters (1656–7) he scolded the
Jesuits for using
casuistic reasoning in confession to placate wealthy Church donors,
while punishing poor penitents. Pascal charged that aristocratic
penitents could confess their sins one day, re-commit the sin the next
day, generously donate the following day, then return to re-confess
their sins and only receive the lightest punishment; Pascal's
criticisms darkened casuistry's reputation.
It was not until publication of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of
Moral Reasoning (1988), by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, that
a revival of casuistry occurred. They argue that the abuse of
casuistry is the problem, not casuistry per se (itself an example of
casuistic reasoning). Properly used, casuistry is powerful reasoning.
Jonsen and Toulmin offer casuistry in dissolving the contradictory
tenets of moral absolutism and the common secular moral relativism:
"the form of reasoning constitutive of classical casuistry is
rhetorical reasoning". Moreover, the ethical philosophies of
Utilitarianism (especially preference utilitarianism) and Pragmatism
commonly are identified as greatly employing casuistic reasoning.
Early modern times
The casuistic method was popular among Catholic thinkers in the early
modern period, and not only among the Jesuits, as it is commonly
thought. Famous casuistic authors include Antonio Escobar y Mendoza,
whose Summula casuum conscientiae (1627) enjoyed a great success,
Vincenzo Filliucci (
Jesuit and penitentiary at St
Peter's), Antonino Diana,
Paul Laymann (Theologia Moralis, 1625), John
Azor (Institutiones Morales, 1600), Etienne Bauny, Louis Cellot,
Hermann Busembaum (d. 1668), etc. One of the main
theses of casuists was the necessity to adapt the rigorous morals of
the Early Fathers of
Christianity to modern morals, which led in some
extreme cases to justify what
Innocent XI later called "laxist moral"
(i.e. justification of usury, homicide, regicide, lying through
"mental reservation", adultery and loss of virginity before marriage,
etc.—all due cases registered by Pascal in the Provincial Letters).
The progress of casuistry was interrupted toward the middle of the
17th century by the controversy which arose concerning the doctrine of
probabilism, which stipulated that one could choose to follow a
"probable opinion", that is, supported by a theologian or another,
even if it contradicted a more probable opinion or a quotation from
one of the Fathers of the Church. The controversy divided Catholic
theologians into two camps, Rigorists and Laxists.
Certain kinds of casuistry were criticized by early Protestant
theologians, because it was used in order to justify many of the
abuses that they sought to reform. It was famously attacked by the
Jansenist philosopher Pascal, during the formulary
controversy against the Jesuits, in his
Provincial Letters as the use
of rhetorics to justify moral laxity, which became identified by the
public with Jesuitism; hence the everyday use of the term to mean
complex and sophistic reasoning to justify moral laxity. By the
mid-18th century, "casuistry" had become a synonym for specious moral
reasoning. However, Puritans were well known for their own
development of casuistry.
In 1679 Pope Innocent XI publicly condemned sixty-five of the
more radical propositions (stricti mentalis), taken chiefly from the
writings of Escobar, Suarez and other casuists as propositiones
laxorum moralistarum and forbade anyone to teach them under penalty of
excommunication. Despite this papal condemnation, both Catholicism
and Protestantism permit the use of ambiguous and equivocal statements
in specific circumstances.
G. E. Moore dealt with casuistry in chapter 1.4 of his Principia
Ethica, in which he claims that "the defects of casuistry are not
defects of principle; no objection can be taken to its aim and object.
It has failed only because it is far too difficult a subject to be
treated adequately in our present state of knowledge". Furthermore, he
asserted that "casuistry is the goal of ethical investigation. It
cannot be safely attempted at the beginning of our studies, but only
at the end".
Since the 1960s, applied ethics has revived the ideas of casuistry in
applying ethical reasoning to particular cases in law, bioethics, and
business ethics, so the reputation of casuistry is somewhat
Pope Francis has criticised "the practice of setting general
laws on the basis of exceptional cases" as casuistry.
Dispensation (Catholic Church)
List of thought processes
School of Salamanca
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