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Casuistry (/ˈkæʒstri/), or case-based reasoning, is a method in applied ethics and jurisprudence, often characterised as a critique of principle- or rule-based reasoning.[1] 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—misapplication 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.[2][3][4] 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 ("Casuistry‥destroys by Distinctions and Exceptions, all Morality, and effaces the essential Difference between Right and Wrong").[5] Most online dictionaries list a pejorative meaning as the primary definition before a neutral one,[6][7][8] though Merriam-Webster lists the neutral one first.[9] In journalistic usage, the pejorative use is ubiquitous.[10][11][12][13]


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 exemplar 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 ethics. Casuistry is the basis of case law in common law, and the standard form of reasoning applied in common law.


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 false.


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").[14] The term casuistry quickly became pejorative with Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of casuistry. In Provincial Letters (1656–7)[15] 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,[16] 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".[17] 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, Thomas Sanchez, 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, Valerius Reginaldus, 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.[18] The controversy divided Catholic theologians into two camps, Rigorists and Laxists.

Casuistry was much mistrusted by early Protestant theologians, because it justified 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.[19] By the mid-18th century, "casuistry" had become a synonym for moral laxity.[citation needed]

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.[20] Despite this papal condemnation, both Catholicism and Protestantism permit the use of ambiguous and equivocal statements in specific circumstances.[21]

Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (d. 1787), founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, then brought some attention back to casuistry by publishing again Hermann Busembaum's Medulla Theologiae Moralis; the last edition published in 1785 and receiving the approbation of the Holy See in 1803.[citation needed] Busembaum's Medulla had been burnt in Toulouse in 1757 because of its justification of regicide, deemed particularly scandalous after Damiens' assassination attempt against Louis XV.[citation needed]

Modern times

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".[22]

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 rehabilitated.

Jesuit Pope Francis has criticised "the practice of setting general laws on the basis of exceptional cases" as casuistry.[23]

See also


  1. "Casuistry", Dictionary of the History of Ideas. University of Virginia Library. Online.
  2. Runes, Dagobert D. "Dictionary of Philosophy". Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Philosophy Pages". Casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "". casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Oxford English Dictionary" Check |url= value (help). "Casuistry". Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "American Heritage Dictionary". Casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English". Casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "". Casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus". casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Dowd, Maureen (25 June 2011). "Why Can't He Be Bi?". New York Times. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Wieseltier, Leon. "The Casuist". The New Republic. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "". search for "casuistry". London. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "search for "casuistry"". Financial Times. Retrieved 7 December 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 83–88.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Pascal, Blaise (1898) [1657]. The Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal. eBooks@Adelaide. M'Crie, Thomas (trans.). London: Chatto & Windus.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Berkeley, U. California Press (1990, ISBN 0-520-06960-9).
  17. Jonsen, 1991, p. 297.
  18. Franklin, Science of Conjecture, p. 74–6, 83.
  19. 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.
  20. Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford History of the Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-282085-0 (p. 287).
  21. J.-P. Cavaillé, Ruser sans mentir, de la casuistique aux sciences sociales: le recours à l’équivocité, entre efficacité pragmatique et souci éthique, in Serge Latouche, P.-J. Laurent, O. Servais & M. Singleton, Les Raisons de la ruse. Une perspective anthropologique et psychanalytique, Actes du colloque international «La raison rusée», Louvain la Neuve, mars 2001, Paris, La Découverte, 2004, pp. 93–118 (French).
  22. Moore, George Edward (1993) [1903]. Baldwin, Thomas (ed.). Principia Ethica (2 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-521-44848-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June", Francis X. Rocca. Catholic News Service. Online.

Further reading

  • Alonso, Alfred (1990). "The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning." Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. XLIII, pp. 639–641.
  • Arnold, Carroll C. (1989). "The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning." Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 75, pp. 494–495.
  • Arras, John D. (1991). "Getting Down to Cases: The Revival of Casuistry in Bioethics." The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 16, pp. 29–51.
  • Biggar, Nigel. (1989). "A Case for Casuistry in the Church." Modern Theology, Vol. 6, p. 29.
  • Blake, David C. (1992). "The Hospital Ethics Committee: Health Care's Moral Conscience or White Elephant?" Hastings Center Report, Vol. 22, pp. 6–12.
  • Bliton, Mark J. (1993). The Ethics of Clinical Ethics Consultation: On the Way to Clinical Philosophy (Diss. Vanderbilt)
  • Boeyink, David E. (1992). "Casuistry: A Case-Based Method for Journalists." Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 7, pp. 107–120.
  • Boyle, Joseph. (1991). "Who is Entitled to Double Effect?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, pp. 475–494.
  • Brody, Baruch A. (1988). "Ethical Questions Raised by the Persistent Vegetative Patient." Hastings Center Report, Vol. 18, pp. 33–37.
  • Brody, Baruch A. (1989). "A Historical Introduction to Jewish Casuistry on Suicide and Euthanasia." in Baruch A. Brody, Suicide and Euthanasia: Historical and Contemporary Themes (Netherlands).
  • Brown, James F. (1991). "The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning." America, p. 492.
  • Buckley, William Joseph. (1989). "The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning." Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, pp. 577–578.
  • Carlson, A. Cheree. (1992). "Creative Casuistry and Feminist Consciousness: The Rhetoric of Moral Reform." Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 78, pp. 16–33.
  • Carney, Bridget Mary. (1993). Modern Casuistry: An Essential But Incomplete Method for Clinical Ethical Decision-Making. (Diss., Graduate Theological Union).
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  • Carson, Ronald A. (1988). "Paul Ramsey, Principled Protestant Casuist: A Retrospective." Medical Humanities Review, Vol. 2, pp. 24–35.
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  • Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal (Johns Hopkins), ch. 4.
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External links