Le grand docteur sophiste, 1886 illustration of Gargantua by Albert Robida, expressing mockery of his casuist education.
In ethics, casuistry (/ˈkæzjuɪstri/KAZ-ew-iss-tree) is a process of reasoning that seeks to resolve moral problems by extracting or extending theoretical rules from a particular case, and reapplying those rules to new instances. This method occurs in applied ethics and jurisprudence. The term is also commonly used as a pejorative to criticize the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions (as in sophistry). It is the "[s]tudy of cases of conscience and a method of solving conflicts of obligations by applying general principles of ethics, religion, and moral theology to particular and concrete cases of human conduct. This frequently demands an extensive knowledge of natural law and equity, civil law, ecclesiastical precepts, and an exceptional skill in interpreting these various norms of conduct." It remains a common tool for applied ethics.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term and its agent noun "casuist", appearing from about 1600, derive from the Latin noun casus, meaning "case", especially as referring to a "case of conscience". The same source says that "[e]ven in the earliest printed uses the sense was pejorative".
Casuistry dates from Aristotle (384–322 BC), yet the zenith of casuistry was from 1550 to 1650, when the Society of Jesus used case-based reasoning, particularly in administering the Sacrament of Penance (or "confession"). The term became pejorative following Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of the method in his Provincial Letters (1656–57). The French mathematician, religious philosopher and Jansenist sympathiser attacked priests who used casuistic reasoning in confession to placate wealthy church donors. Pascal charged that aristocratic penitents could confess a sin one day, re-commit it the next, then generously donate to the church and return to re-confess their sin in confidence of being assigned only a nominal penance. These criticisms darkened casuistry's reputation in following centuries. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 1738 essay by Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke to the effect that casuistry "destroys, by distinctions and exceptions, all morality, and effaces the essential difference between right and wrong, good and evil"
The 20th century saw a revival of interest in casuistry. In their book The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin argue that it is not casuistry but the abuse of casuistry that has been a problem; that, properly used, casuistry is powerful reasoning. Jonsen and Toulmin offer casuistry as a method for dissolving the contradictory tenets of moral absolutism and moral relativism. In addition, the ethical philosophies of utilitarianism (especially preference utilitarianism) and pragmatism have been identified as employing casuistic reasoning.[by whom?]
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 Catholic and 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 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".
^170 "Casuistry..destroys, by distinctions and exceptions, all morality, and effaces the essential difference between right and wrong." Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism 1736 (pub. 1749), quoted in Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed.
^Jonsen, Albert R., The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, University of California Press, 1988. ISBN0-52-006063-6 (p. 2).
^Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford History of the Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN0-19-282085-0 (p. 287).
Houle, Martha Marie (1983). The Fictions of Casuistry and Pascal's Jesuit in "Les Provinciales" (Diss. U California, San Diego)
Hunter, Michael (1993). "Casuistry in Action: Robert Boyle's Confessional Interviews with Gilbert Burnet and Edward Stillingfleet, 1691". The Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 44: 80–98. doi:10.1017/S0022046900010216. S2CID162420334.
Jonsen, Albert R. (1991). "Of Balloons and Bicycles; or, the Relationship between Ethical Theory and Practical Judgment". The Hastings Center Report. 21 (5): 14–16. doi:10.2307/3562885. JSTOR3562885. PMID1743945.
Jonsen, Albert R. and Stephen Toulmin (1988). The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (California).
Keenan, James F., S.J. and Thomas A. Shannon. (1995). The Context of Casuistry (Washington).
Kirk, K. (1936). Conscience and Its Problems, An Introduction to Casuistry (London)