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 abstract 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 used pejoratively to criticise the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions (as in sophistry).[2] It has been defined as follows:

Study 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....[3]

It remains a common method in applied ethics.[4]


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, "Even in the earliest printed uses the sense was pejorative".[5]


Casuistry dates from Aristotle (384–322 BC), yet the peak 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 became pejorative following Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of the method in his Provincial Letters (1656–57).[7] The French mathematician, religious philosopher and Jansenist sympathiser attacked priests who used casuistic reasoning in confession to pacify wealthy church donors. Pascal charged that "remorseful" aristocrats could confess a sin one day, re-commit it the next, then generously donate to the church and return to re-confess their sin, confident that they were being assigned a penance in name only. These criticisms darkened casuistry's reputation in the following centuries. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 1738 essay[8] 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".[9]

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[10] argue that it is not casuistry but its abuse that has been a problem; that, properly used, casuistry is powerful reasoning. Jonsen and Toulmin offer casuistry as a method for compromising the contradictory principles 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?]

Early modernity

The casuistic method was popular among Catholic thinkers in the early modern period. Casuistic authors include Antonio Escobar y Mendoza, whose Summula casuum conscientiae (1627) enjoyed 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, and Hermann Busembaum (d. 1668).[11]

The progress of casuistry was interrupted toward the middle of the 17th century by the controversy which arose concerning the doctrine of probabilism, which effectively stated that one could choose to follow a "probable opinion"—that is, an opinion 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.[12]

Certain kinds of casuistry were criticised by early Protestant theologians, because it was used to justify many of the abuses that they sought to reform. It was famously attacked by the Catholic and Jansenist philosopher Blaise 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.[13] By the mid-18th century, "casuistry" had become a synonym for attractive-sounding, but ultimately false, moral reasoning.[14]

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.[15] Despite this condemnation by a pope, both Catholicism and Protestantism permit the use of ambiguous statements in specific circumstances.[16]

Later modernity

G. E. Moore dealt with casuistry in chapter 1.4 of his Principia Ethica, in which he claimed 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".[17]

Since the 1960s, applied ethics has revived the ideas of casuistry in applying moral reasoning to particular cases in law, bioethics, and business ethics. Its facility for dealing with situations where rules or values conflict with each other has made it a useful approach in professional ethics, and casuistry's reputation has improved somewhat as a result.[18]

Pope Francis, a Jesuit, has criticized casuistry as "the practice of setting general laws on the basis of exceptional cases" in instances where a more holistic approach would be preferred.[19]

See also


  1. ^ "Philosophy-Dictionary.org". casuistry. Archived from the original on 18 January 2012. 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. ^ Rolbiecki, J. J. (1942). "Casuistry". In Runes, Dagobert D. (ed.). Dictionary of Philosophy. Retrieved 26 October 2023.
  4. ^ Kemerling, Garth (10 December 2011). "Casuistry". Philosophy Pages. Retrieved 26 October 2023.
  5. ^ Harper, Douglas R. "casuist (n.)". Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  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. Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 23 January 2009.
  8. ^ "Letters on the spirit of patriotism : On the idea of a patriot king : and on the state of parties at the accession of King George the First / Henry St John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke. 1752". Royal Collection Trust. Archived from the original on 20 June 2022.
  9. ^ "Casuistry". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 21 September 2017., quoting St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, Henry (1752). Letters on the spirit of patriotism : On the idea of a patriot king : and on the state of parties at the accession of King George the First. London: A. Millar. p. 187.
  10. ^ Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Berkeley, U. California Press (1990, ISBN 0-520-06960-9).
  11. ^ Decock, Wim (2011). "From Law to Paradise: Confessional Catholicism and Legal Scholarship". Rechtsgeschichte. 2011 (18): 012–034. doi:10.12946/rg18/012-034. ISSN 1619-4993.
  12. ^ Franklin, Science of Conjecture, p. 74–6, 83.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Jonsen, Albert R., The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, University of California Press, 1988. ISBN 0-52-006063-6 (p. 2).
  15. ^ Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford History of the Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-282085-0 (p. 287).
  16. ^ 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).
  17. ^ Moore, George Edward (1993) [1903]. Baldwin, Thomas (ed.). Principia Ethica (2 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-521-44848-4.
  18. ^ "Casuistry | Ethics & Moral Decision Making | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 11 April 2024.
  19. ^ "Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June", Francis X. Rocca. Catholic News Service. Online.

Further reading

  • Arras, J. D. (1991). "Getting Down to Cases: The Revival of Casuistry in Bioethics". Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 16 (1): 29–51. doi:10.1093/jmp/16.1.29. PMID 2010719. S2CID 4542283.
  • Biggar, Nigel (1989). "A Case for Casuistry in the Church". Modern Theology. 6: 29–51. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0025.1989.tb00206.x.
  • Blake, David C. (1992). "The Hospital Ethics Committee Health Care's Moral Conscience or White Elephant?". The Hastings Center Report. 22 (1): 6–11. doi:10.2307/3562714. JSTOR 3562714. PMID 1544801.
  • 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 Methods for Journalists". Journal of Mass Media Ethics. 7 (2): 107–120. doi:10.1207/s15327728jmme0702_4.
  • Boyle, J. (1991). "Who is Entitled to Double Effect?". Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 16 (5): 475–494. doi:10.1093/jmp/16.5.475. PMID 1779208.
  • Brody, Baruch A. (1988). "Ethical Questions Raised by the Persistent Vegetative Patient". The Hastings Center Report. 18 (1): 33–37. doi:10.2307/3562015. JSTOR 3562015. PMID 3350649.
  • Brody, Baruch A. (1989). "A Historical Introduction to Jewish Casuistry on Suicide and Euthanasia". Suicide and Euthanasia. Philosophy and Medicine. Vol. 35. pp. 39–75. doi:10.1007/978-94-015-7838-7_3. ISBN 978-90-481-4039-8.
  • Carlson, A. Cheree (1992). "Creative casuistry and feminist consciousness: The rhetoric of moral reform". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 78: 16–32. doi:10.1080/00335639209383979.
  • 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. 11 (1): 51–59. doi:10.1007/BF00489238. PMID 2339334. S2CID 22670761.
  • 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 (2): 313–324. doi:10.1093/jaarel/LX.2.313.
  • Degrazia, D. (1992). "Moving Forward in Bioethical Theory: Theories, Cases, and Specified Principlism". Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 17 (5): 511–539. doi:10.1093/jmp/17.5.511. PMID 1431667.
  • Downie, R. (1992). "Health care ethics and casuistry". Journal of Medical Ethics. 18 (2): 61–66. doi:10.1136/jme.18.2.61. PMC 1376108. PMID 1619625.
  • 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, Alice Leveille (1995). "Casuistry, care, compassion, and ethics data analysis". Advances in Nursing Science. 17 (3): 47–57. doi:10.1097/00012272-199503000-00006. PMID 7778890. S2CID 44950319.
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  • Jonsen, Albert R. and Stephen Toulmin (1988). The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (California).
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