The Practical Need for Casuistry

Casuistry then almost disappeared from the formal academic disciplines that study moral discourse. However, in the 1960s, a number of important moral questions began to trouble the American conscience, and moral philosophers were spurred to attend to the practical application of their discipline. The war in Vietnam required many to examine their consciences concerning support of and participation in what they felt was an immoral war. At the same time, the civil rights movement stimulated consciences concerning discrimination and racial injustice. The analytic moral philosophy current in academic circles had little advice to offer. Even the widely accepted and elaborate utilitarian theory seemed to lead to no firm conclusions.

The emerging interest in the ethics of medical and healthcare also opened vistas for a new casuistry. Medical care is about cases: the illness and the treatment of particular persons with particular diseases. Philosophers and theologians who engaged in this work had initially tried to bring the standard ethical theories to the analysis of medical problems, but they found themselves discussing cases, not theories, and felt the need for an approach that would stay closer to the particulars of the case under discussion than did the standard theories. Above all, they realized that cases were being discussed not merely to elucidate the meaning of concepts but also to arrive at a resolution: physicians, nurses, and patients were interested in what moral philosophy had abandoned: answers to practical moral perplexity. By the late 1970s, talk of "case method" had become common in bioethics. At the same time, ethical issues in business, government, and journalism seemed to call for study of individual cases rather than flights into ethical theory. Also, influential moral philosophers were beginning to criticize the dominance of moral theory in practical ethics and to call for approaches that were more concrete than speculative.

Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin published The Abuse ofCasuistry in 1988. Aware that many were interested in inventing a "case method" for ethics, they hoped to show that such a method had been invented long ago and that, although discredited and seemingly outmoded, classical casuistry had much to offer modern ethicists. Case method in ethics might be similar in many respects to the case method in Anglo-American common law, which had developed in parallel with classical casuistry. Both the common law, about which much research has been done, and casuistry, which has been invisible to the scholarly world for several centuries, need to be explored if a case method for ethics, of "morisprudence," is to be re-created. These authors attempted to restore casuistry to intellectual respectability. After a historical survey of the rise and fall of casuistry, they contrast it with current approaches to moral philosophy and define it as follows:

[T]he analysis of moral issues, using procedures of reasoning based on paradigms and analogies, leading to the formulation of expert opinion about the existence and stringency of particular moral obligations, framed in terms of rules and maxims that are general but not universal or invariable, since they hold good with certainty only in the typical conditions of the agent and circumstances of the case. (p. 257)

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