Casuistry

Case-by-case judgment. It is a meticulous approach, acknowledged in essence by Aristotle but developed in full as one of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages.C56

Casuistry cultivated what it saw as good practice in thinking. It aimed at, and often achieved, a benign combination of:

1. closely-observed detail of the individual case,

2. a frame of reference (here, the Christian ethic) within which to think about it, and

3. well-defined feedback, so that opinion could evolve incrementally in the light of the individual cases.

Within the church, there was—along with the universal principles—a reflective theological tradition which could make diverse judgments, kindly and charitably, against whatever criteria seemed most suitable: virtues, sins, nature, experience, circumstance, precedent, reason . . .C57

There is, in this approach, a humanity and intelligence, as well as common sense, and the combination of local detail and broad principle in the medieval period was similar in some ways to those of the radical environmental movement today. Community was fundamental: man’s place in nature being “to know the truth about God and to live in communities”. Local self-sufficiency in food was urged as a virtue by St. Thomas Aquinas; there was a distrust of international trade and of economic growth; excess profits were condemned as “filthy lucre” (turpe lucrum); local credit unions provided cheap loans; common land-ownership was widely practised; fair terms of employment, responsibility for the poor and defence of peasant farmers against eviction by enclosures, were collective virtues.C58

It was partly for his defence of such as these that medieval virtue’s last hero, Archbishop Laud, was to be executed in 1645. R. H. Tawney wrote in admiration of Laud and his civic principles:

An intense conviction of the fundamental solidarity of all the manifold elements in a great community, a grand sense of the dignity of public duties, a passionate hatred for the self-seeking pettiness of personal cupidities and sectional interests—these qualities are not among the weaknesses against which the human nature of ordinary men requires to be most upon its guard, and these qualities Laud possessed, not only in abundance, but to excess.C59

The problem was that, by the early seventeenth century, economic and social change was so fast that a constant (or slowly-evolving) frame of reference within which to deliberate could not keep pace. The first response to this was to dig in—to develop casuistry as far as it would go. Conscience was moved up into the front line of moral reflection, perhaps in a way not equalled before or since. Judgment came under stress from an increasing tension between (on one hand), the principles and (on the other hand) the specific circumstances which profoundly affect the way in which they are interpreted, and which can sometimes seem to be in direct contradiction to them. An oath has to be honoured; but what happens when a new government comes in that requires you to take an oath of loyalty which is contrary to the previous one? You must tell the truth; but no businessman who revealed all to his competitors would survive very long. Special cases seemed to arise at every turn, and internal battles of conscience were sometimes taken so seriously that they required analysis by learned counsel.C60

So casuistry started to retreat, and this turned to rout—giving casuistry its bad name—when it was rubbished as a hopeless mess of inconsistencies and fast-talking in Blaise Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales (1656). The clear-out simplified matters a lot. As the historian John Selden observed scornfully over dinner one day in the 1680s,

Some men make it a case of conscience, whether a man may have a pigeon-house, because his pigeons eate other folks Corne; but there is no such thing as conscience in ye businesse; ye matter is whether he be a man of such quality that ye state allows him to have a Dovehouse: if soe, there’s an end of ye businesse; his pigeons have a right to eate where they list themselves.C61

That is: Relax, my dear fellow, you’re doing fine; don’t worry about things so much. Let the law worry its head about all that stuff; you have now entered the world of civil society and tolerant fellowship. A satisfactory role model for “my dear fellow” in eighteenth century Britain was found in Jesus Christ himself: he gets an encouraging pat on the head as “the best and happiest man that ever was”.C62

But casuistry will outlive the market. It matters because it is the opposite of ideology. It looks at the detail. It applies judgment. It resists tyranny. It looks you in the eye. It consults the emotions. It does not envy character, nor seek to destroy it. It affirms the freedom to think within a desired and agreed frame of reference. It is lean.

 

Related entries:

Caritas, Green Authoritarianism, Humility, Lean Thinking.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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