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Casuistry

Decline

While a case-method approach to moral theology can be found in some Anglican writers like Robert Sanderson (1587–1663) and Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), it is noticeable that most philosophers and theologians in English-speaking countries eschewed probabilism and other theories of Roman Catholic casuistry. Their hostility to these ideas, however, did not prevent them from developing a Christian ethics that addressed its own understanding of cases of conscience. Puritan moralists like William Ames (1576–1633), William Perkins (1558–1602), and Richard Baxter (1615–1691) discussed the vagaries of conscience as they pertained to the practices of piety, while the aforementioned Anglicans, Sanderson and Taylor, and Joseph Hall (1574–1656), were at pains to stress the gulf that separated their treatment of the problems of morality from "papists" and other such undesirables. The effect of these developments was to sideline casuistical ethics within English-speaking moral theology for most of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the consequence that it had become invisible by the advent of the nineteenth.

The continuing decline of casuistry can also be witnessed in modern moral philosophy. As they began to express their independence from religion and theology, moral philosophers began to doubt the relevance of a theory of practical conduct indebted to religious values and principles. Further to this, the appeal to authority inherent in a theory like probabilism was now deemed to be authoritarian in an age smitten with ideas of individual autonomy and inalienable rights. For these reasons, traditional casuistry found little favor among philosophers. Thinkers such as Adam Smith (1723–1790) expressed their hostility with aplomb, while Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) treatment of certain "Casuistical Questions" at the end of his Metaphysik der Sitten (1797) reveals the extent of the changes that had occurred within the discussion of casuistry from the mid-seventeenth century onward. For Kant, casuistry could only mean "applied ethics"; the method of the theologians had been debunked and abandoned.

This more neutral sense of casuistry as the "application of moral principles to particular cases" persisted up until the early 2000s, as can be witnessed in the isolated remarks on the subject by William Paley (1743–1805), Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), and George Edward Moore (1873–1958). Apart from several historical studies that invariably upheld the critique of Pascal, twentieth-century thinkers were rarely inclined to study the claims of the casuistical tradition. This changed, however, with the publication in 1988 of the Abuse of Casuistry by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin. They argued that, notwithstanding its colorful past, the old casuistical methods of the theologians could be transposed with great benefit to ongoing debates in bioethics. Jonsen and Toulmin offered a redescription of casuistry in terms of reasoning about "paradigm cases," a method that they deemed sufficient to fashion a viable notion of moral consensus. If not in moral philosophy, certainly in bioethics their work has been favorably received and continues to stimulate further work on a host of practical issues. Here, "casuistry" is deemed to be an important tool for making decisions of principle while respecting the requirements of particular cases. While Jonsen and Toulmin's portrayal of the casuistical tradition is controversial—not least in its eschewal of probabilism and readiness to concur with the basic ingredients of Pascal's questionable critique—it is interesting that as a new century begins, the much maligned method of the theologians is enjoying something of a modest revival.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jonsen, Albert, and Stephen Toulmin. The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Keenan, James F., and Thomas A. Shannon, eds. The Context of Casuistry. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995.

Leites, Edmund, ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Vallance, Edward, and Harald Braun, eds. Contexts of Conscience in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

M. W. F. Stone

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Calcium Sulfate to Categorical imperativeCasuistry - Probabilism, Decline, Bibliography