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Casuistry (/ˈkæzjuɪstri/) 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.[1] 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).[2] The word casuistry derives from the Latin noun casus ("case" or "occurrence").

The Oxford English Dictionary says, quoting Viscount Bolingbroke, Viscount (1749), 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 (e.g., "Casuistry destroys by distinctions and exceptions, all morality, and effaces the essential difference between right and wrong").[3]


Casuistry 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."[4] It remains a common tool for applied ethics.[5]


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").[6] The term casuistry or Jesuitism quickly became pejorative with Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of casuistry. Some Jesuit theologians,[who?] in view of promoting personal responsibility and the respect of freedom of conscience, stressed the importance of the 'case by case' approach to personal moral decisions and ultimately developed and accepted a casuistry (the study of cases of consciences) where at the time of decision, individual inclinations were more important than the moral law itself.

In Provincial Letters (1656–7)[7] the French mathematician, religious philosopher and Jansenist sympathiser, Blaise Pascal vigorously attacked the moral laxism of such Jesuits 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.

A British encyclopedia of 1900 claimed that it was "popularly regarded as an attempt to achieve holy ends by unholy means."[8]

It was not until publication of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin,[9] 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".[10] Moreover, the ethical philosophies of Utilitarianism (especially preference utilitarianism) and Pragmatism commonly are identified as greatly employing casuistic reasoning.

Early modern times[edit]

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.[11] 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.[12] By the mid-18th century, "casuistry" had become a synonym for specious moral reasoning.[13] 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.[14] Despite this papal condemnation, both Catholicism and Protestantism permit the use of ambiguous and equivocal statements in specific circumstances.[15]

Modern times[edit]

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".[16]

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.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit, has criticised utilizing casuistry "the practice of setting general laws on the basis of exceptional cases" in instances where a more wholistic approach would be more appropriate.[17]


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 could 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 a branch of applied ethics. It is also criticized for the use of inconsistent—or outright specious—application of rule to instance.


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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "". casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  2. ^ "Casuistry". Dictionary of the History of Ideas. University of Virginia Library. Archived from the original on 18 June 2006.
  3. ^ "Casuistry". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 21 September 2017., quoting Bolingbroke, Viscount (1749). Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism and on the Idea of a Patriot King. London. p. 170.
  4. ^ Runes, Dagobert D. "Dictionary of Philosophy". Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  5. ^ "Philosophy Pages". Casuistry. Retrieved 7 December 2011.
  6. ^ Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 83–88.
  7. ^ Pascal, Blaise (1898) [1657]. The Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal. eBooks@Adelaide. M'Crie, Thomas (trans.). London: Chatto & Windus.
  8. ^ Nuttall Encyclopædia of General Knowledge
  9. ^ Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Berkeley, U. California Press (1990, ISBN 0-520-06960-9).
  10. ^ Jonsen, 1991, p. 297.
  11. ^ Franklin, Science of Conjecture, p. 74–6, 83.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Jonsen, Albert R., The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, University of California Press, 1988. ISBN 0-52-006063-6 (p. 2).
  14. ^ Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford History of the Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-282085-0 (p. 287).
  15. ^ 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 (in French).
  16. ^ Moore, George Edward (1993) [1903]. Baldwin, Thomas (ed.). Principia Ethica (2 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-521-44848-4.
  17. ^ "Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June", Francis X. Rocca. Catholic News Service. Online.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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).
  • 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).
  • Carson, Ronald A. (1990). "Interpretive Bioethics: The Way of Discernment." Theoretical Medicine, Vol. 11, pp. 51–59.
  • Carson, Ronald A. (1988). "Paul Ramsey, Principled Protestant Casuist: A Retrospective." Medical Humanities Review, Vol. 2, pp. 24–35.
  • Chidwick, Paula Marjorie (1994). Approaches to Clinical Ethical Decision-Making: Ethical Theory, Casuistry and Consultation. (Diss., U of Guelph)
  • Davis, Dena S. (1992). "Abortion in Jewish Thought: A Study in Casuistry." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 60, pp. 313–324.
  • Degrazia, David (1992). "Moving Forward in Bioethical Theory: Theory, Cases, and Specified Principilism." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 17, pp. 511–539.
  • Downie, R. (1992). "Health Care Ethics and Casuistry." Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 18, pp. 61–62, 66.
  • Drane, J.F. (1990). "Methodologies for Clinical Ethics." Bulletin of the Pan American Health Organization, Vol. 24, pp. 394–404.
  • Dworkin, R.B. (1994). "Emerging Paradigms in Bioethics: Symposium." Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 69, pp. 945–1122.
  • Elliot, Carl (1992). "Solving the Doctor's Dilemma?" New Scientist, Vol. 133, pp. 42–43.
  • Emanuel, Ezekiel J. (1991). The Ends of Human Life: Medical Ethics in a Liberal Polity (Cambridge).
  • Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal (Johns Hopkins), ch. 4.
  • Gallagher, Lowell (1991). Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance (Stanford)
  • Gaul, Al (1995). "Casuistry, Care, Compassion, and Ethics Data Analysis." ANS Advance Nursing Science, Vol. 17, pp. 47–57.
  • Green, Bryan S. (1988). Literary Methods and Sociological Theory: Case Studies of Simmel and Weber (Albany)
  • Hoffmaster, B. (1994). "The Forms and Limits of Medical Ethics." Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 39, pp. 1155–64.
  • 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." Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 44, pp. 80–99.
  • Hunter, Kathryn Montgomery (1989). "A Science of Individuals: Medicine and Casuistry." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 14, pp. 193–220.
  • Jonsen, Albert R. (1991). "American Moralism and the Origin of Bioethics in the United States." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, pp. 113–130.
  • Jonsen, Albert R. (1986). "Casuistry and Clinical Ethics." Theoretical Medicine, Vol. 7, pp. 65–74.
  • Jonsen, Albert R. (1986). "Casuistry" in J.F. Childress and J. Macgvarrie, eds. Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia)
  • Jonsen, Albert R. (1991). "Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics." Theoretical Medicine, pp. 295–307.
  • Jonsen, Albert R. (1991). "Of Balloons and Bicycles; or, The Relationship Between Ethical Theory and Practical Judgment." Hastings Center Report, pp. 14–16.
  • 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)
  • Klinefelter, Donald S. (1990). "How is Applied Philosophy to Be Applied?" Journal of Social Philosophy, pp. 16–26.
  • Kopelman, Loretta M. (1994). "Case Method and Casuistry: The Problem of Bias." Theoretical Medicine, Vol. 15, pp. 21–37.
  • Kopelman, Loretta M. (1990). "What is Applied About 'Applied' Philosophy?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 15, pp. 199–218.
  • Kuczewski, Mark G. (1994). "Casuistry and Its Communitarian Critics." Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Vol. 4, pp. 99–116.
  • Kuczewski, Mark G. (1994). Fragmentation and Consensus in Contemporary Neo-Aristotelian Ethics: A Study in Communitarianism and Casuistry (Diss., Duquesne U).
  • Leites, E. (1988). ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge).
  • Leites, E. (1974). "Conscience, Casuistry, and Moral Decision: Some Historical Perspectives." Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 41–58.
  • Long, Edward LeRoy, junior (1954). Conscience and Compromise: an Approach to Protestant Casuistry (Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster Press)
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair (1990). "The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning." Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. XXVIII, pp. 634–635.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair (1984). "Does Applied Ethics Rest on a Mistake?" Monist, Vol. 67, pp. 498–513.
  • Mackler, Aaron Leonard. Cases of Judgments in Ethical Reasoning: An Appraisal of Contemporary Casuistry and Holistic Model for the Mutual Support of Norms and Case Judgments (Diss., Georgetown U).
  • Macpherson-Smith, M. (1994). "Anchor and Course for the Modern Ship of Casuistry." Cambridge Quarterly Healthcare Ethics, Vol. 3, pp. 391–402.
  • Mahowald, Mary B. (1994). "Collaboration and Casuistry: A Peircean Pragmatic for the Clinical Setting." in Herman Parret, ed. Peirce and Value Theory (Amsterdam).
  • McCready, Amy R. (1992). "Milton's Casuistry: The Case of 'The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.' " Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, pp. 393–428.
  • Miller, Richard B. (1989). "On Transplanting Human Fetal Tissue: Presumptive Duties and the Task of Casuistry." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 14, pp. 617–624.
  • Murray, Thomas H. (1994). "Medical Ethics, Moral Philosophy and Moral Tradition." in K.W.M. Fulford, ed. Medicine and Moral Reasoning (New York).
  • Murray, Thomas H. (1993). "Moral Reasoning in Social Context." Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 49, pp. 185–199.
  • Odozor, Paulinus Ikechukwu (1989). Richard A. McCormick and Casuistry: Moral Decision-Making in Conflict Situations (M.A. Thesis, St. Michael's College).
  • Pack, Rolland W. (1988). Case Studies and Moral Conclustions: The Philosophical Use of Case Studies in Biomedical Ethics (Diss., Georgetown U).
  • Pascal, Blaise (1967). The Provincial Letters (London).
  • Peach, Lucinda Joy (1994). "Feminist Cautions About Casuistry." Policy Studies, Vol. 57, pp. 143–160.
  • Río Parra, Elena del (2008). Cartografías de la conciencia española en la Edad de Oro (Mexico).
  • Rudy, Kathy (1994). "Thinking Through the Ethics of Abortion." Theology Today, Vol. 51, pp. 235–249.
  • Seiden, Melvin (1990). Measure for Measure: Casuistry and Artistry (Washington).
  • Sichol, Marcia, S.H.C.J. (1992). "Women and the New Casuistry." Thought, Vol. 67, pp. 148–157.
  • Singer, Marcus G. (1980). "Is Ethics a Science: Ought it to Be?" Zygon, Vol. 15, pp. 29–42.
  • Smith, David H. (1991). "Stories, Values, and Patient Care Decisions." in Charles Conrad, ed. The Ethical Nexus: Values in Organizational Decision Making. (New Jersey).
  • Sobel, Jordan Howard (1985). "Everyone's Conforming to a Rule." Philosophical Studies, Vol. 48, pp. 375–387.
  • Spohn, William C. (1993). "The Magisterium and Morality." Theological Studies, Vol. 54, pp. 95–111.
  • Starr, G. (1971). Defoe and Casuistry (Princeton).
  • Strong, Carson (1988). "Justification in Ethics" in Baruch Brody, ed. Moral Theory and Moral Judgment in Medical Ethics (Dordrecht).
  • Tallmon, James Michael (2001). "Casuistry" in The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Ed. Thomas O. Sloane. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 83–88.
  • Tallmon, James Michael (1993). Casuistry and the Quest for Rhetorical Reason: Conceptualizing a Method of Shared Moral Inquiry (Diss., U of Washington).
  • Tallmon, James Michael (1994). "How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry: A Note on the Abuse of Father Wildes." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 19, pp. 103–113.
  • Taylor, Richard (1984). Good and Evil – A New Direction: A Foreceful Attack on the Rationalist Tradition in Ethics (Buffalo).
  • Thomasma, David C. (1994). "Clinical Ethics as Medical Hermeneutics." Theoretical Medicine, Vol. 15, pp. 93–111.
  • Tomlinson, Tom (1994). "Casuistry in Medical Ethics: Rehabilitated, or Repeat Offender?" Theoretical Medicine, Vol. 15, pp. 5–20.
  • Toulmin, Stephen (1982). "How Medicine Saved the Life of Ethics." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 25, pp. 736–750.
  • Toulmin, Stephen (1988). "The Recovery of Practical Philosophy." The American Scholar, Vol. 57, pp. 337–352.
  • Toulmin, Stephen (1981). "The Tyranny of Principles." Hastings Center Report, Vol. 11, pp. 31–39.
  • Van Der Steen, William J., and Bert Musschenga (1992). "The Issue of Generality in Ethics." Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 26, pp. 511–524.
  • Walton, Douglas N. (1990). "Courage, Relativism and Practical Reasoning." Philosophia, Vol. 20, pp. 227–240.
  • Watson, Robert N. (1992). "Measure for Measure: Casuistry and Artistry." Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, pp. 242–244.
  • Weinstein, Bruce David (1989). The Possibility of Ethical Expertise (Diss. Georgetown U).
  • Weston, Anthony (1984). "Drawing Lines: The Abortion Perplex and the Presuppositions of Applied Ethics." Monist, Vol. 67, pp. 589–604.
  • Wildes, Kevin Wm., S.J. (1990). "The Priesthood of Bioethics and the Return of Casuistry." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 18, pp. 33–49.
  • Wildes, Kevin Wm., S.J. (1993). The View for Somewhere: Moral Judgment in Bioethics (Diss. Rice U).
  • Winston, Morton (1990). "Ethics Committee Simulations." Teaching Philosophy, pp. 127–140.
  • Zacker, David J. (1991). Reflection and Particulars: Does Casuistry Offer Us Stable Beliefs About Ethics? (M.A. Thesis, Western Michigan U).
  • Zaner, Richard M. (1993). "Voices and Time: The Venture of Clinical Ethics." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 18, pp. 9–31

External links[edit]