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Casuistry is a broad term that refers to a variety of forms of case-based reasoning. Used in discussions of law and ethics, casuistry is often understood as a critique of a strict principle-based approach to reasoning. For example, while a principle-based approach may conclude that lying is always morally wrong, the casuist would argue that lying may or may not be wrong, depending on the details surrounding the case. Consider the following two cases. On the one hand, the casuist might conclude that a person is wrong to lie while giving legal testimony under oath. On the other hand, the casuist might argue that lying is actually the best moral choice if the lie saves someone's life. For the casuist, the circumstances surrounding a particular case are essential for evaluating the proper response to a particular case.
Casuistic reasoning typically begins with a clear-cut,paradigm case (from the Greek word παράδειγμα (paradeigma) which means "pattern" or "example", from the word παραδεικνύναι (paradeiknunai) meaning "demonstrate"). In legal reasoning, for example, this might be a case precedent, such as an obvious case of premeditated murder. From this model case, the casuist would then ask how close the particular case currently under consideration matches the paradigm case. Cases similar to the paradigm case ought to be treated in a similar manner; cases unlike the paradigm case ought to be treated differently. Thus, a man is properly charged with premeditated murder if the circumstances surrounding his particular case closely resemble the ideal case of premeditated murder. The less a particular case resembles the paradigm case, the weaker the justification for treating that particular case like the paradigm case.
While the roots of Western casuistry can (at least) be traced back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the high point of casuistry occurred from approximately 1550 to 1650. It was at this time that the rise of the Jesuit order made extensive use of casuistry, particularly in the practice of the private Catholic confessional. The term quickly took on a pejorative meaning, following Blaise Pascal's attack on the misuse of casuistry. In his Provincial Letters (1656-1657), Pascal scoulded the Jesuits for, among other offenses, using casuistic reasoning during confessional practice to placate wealthy Church donors, while punishing poorer penitents. Pascal charged that aristocratic penitents could confess their sins one day, commit the same sin the next day, make a generous financial donation the following day, then return to confess their sins once again, only to receive the lightest of punishments. Pascal's criticisms cast a long shadow on casuistry's reputation. Since the 17th century, casuistry has been widely considered a degenerate form of reasoning. Critics of casuistry often focus on how casuistry functions as specious argumention or as intentionally misleading.
Not until 1988, with the publication of Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin's Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, did a revival of casuistry meet with any significant success. Their work argued that it was the abuse of casuistry that was the problem, not casuistry itself. Properly used, casuistry is a powerful tool in reasoning. Jonsen and Toulmin offer casuistry as an attempt to to dissolve the seemingly contradictory philosophical positions of absolutism and relativism.
 The casuist morality
Casuistry takes a relentlessly practical approach to morality. Rather using theories as starting points, casuistry begins with an examination of cases. By drawing parallels between paradigms, so called "pure cases," and the case at hand, a casuist tries to determine an moral response appropriatew to a particular case.
Casuistry has been described as "theory modest"(Arras, see below). One of the strenghts of casuistry is that it does not begin, nor does it overemphasize theoretical issues. Casuistry does not require practicioners 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 the form of reasoning used in English law.
Casuistry is prone to abuses wherever the analogies between cases are false. Often late medieval reasoning applied false analogies in casuistry, through allegorical interpretations, a mode of illogic that found support in the elaborate parallels deduced by Christians between Old Testament Law and New Testament events.
 Casuistry in early modern times
The casuistic method was popular among Rabbinic scholars and Catholic thinkers in the early modern period, especially the Jesuits. It was encouraged by the Catholic practice of confession of sins to priests, which created a demand for manuals for confessors with detailed advice on cases of conscience. 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 Pascal in his Provincial Letters as the use of overly complex reasoning to justify moral laxity; hence the everyday use of the term to mean complex reasoning to justify moral laxity. Pascal defended the Jansenist Port-Royal Logic against the Jesuits' casuistry and their legitimation of power.
Casuists have often been mistrusted as too self-serving, and their reasoning thought too inaccessible. The reasoning is often inaccessible because successful casuistry requires a large amount of knowledge about paradigms, and how parallels can be drawn from those paradigms to real life situations. In modern times, there is a similar tremendous resentment against lawyers and law. Defenders of casuistry often point out that the problems are not so much with casuistry itself, but with the impromper use of casuistry.
 Casuistry in modern times
In modern times, casuistry has successfully been applied to law, bioethics and business ethics, and its reputation is somewhat rehabilitated. G.E. Moore dealt in chapter 1.4 of his Principia Ethica with casuistry; 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."
A good reference, analysing the methodological structure of casuistic argument is The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1990), by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin (ISBN 0520069609).
 External links
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Casuistry
- Accountancy as computational casuistics, article on how modern compliance regimes in accountancy and law apply casuistry
- Casuistry - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Mortimer Adler's Great Ideas - Casuistry
- 1911 Encyclopedia
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Casuistry
- Summary of casuistry by Jeramy Townsley
- Casuistry - Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy
 See also
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