welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


A Footnote On Casuistry

Mike Fuller asks whether applied ethics is possible.

Over the past decade, there has been a distinct shift of interest in moral philosophy from considering questions of ‘meta-ethics’ to considering questions of ‘applied ethics’. By ‘meta-ethics’ I mean any attempt at analysing ‘how ethics works’. Meta-ethics consists of classifying ethical theories in various ways (such as subjectivist or objectivist, cognitive or noncognitive, motivist or consequentialist, etc.) and of investigating the logical relations between them. It is also centrally concerned with the linguistic analysis of concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘right’, as in G.E. Moore’s pioneering book Principia Ethica. Partly due to Moore’s analysis of the concept of ‘good’, meta-ethics also came to include questions about the relations between what may variously be styled ‘is’ and ‘ought’, ‘fact’ and ‘value’, and ‘real’ and ‘ideal’. Curiously enough, in all this welter of meta-activity, not much attention was paid to the structure of casuistry – an odd oversight, it might seem, since casuistry arguably lies at the very heart of how ethics works.

So what is ‘casuistry’? I define it as the application of ethical principles to specific cases. It is the instrument, method, or procedure that links ‘pure ethics’ and ‘applied ethics’.

What do I mean by ‘pure ethics’? I mean the whole collection of different normative theories, usually connected in some way to descriptive metaphysical theories, that the history of philosophy has so far produced. Hedonism is a theory in ‘pure ethics’, for example; Utilitarianism is another. Pure ethics is especially concerned with the supreme principle or summum bonum that serves as the basic axiom of any particular ethical theory. Immanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ (“So act that you can will your act to become a universal law”) or the Principle of Utility in Utilitarian ethical theory (“Act so as to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number”) are examples of such ‘greatest goods’ which are supposed to inform, within the bounds of the theory in question, all casuistical deductions in applied ethics.

What do I mean by ‘applied ethics’? Well, it is of course impossible to do any ‘applying’ in ethics without reference to pure ethical principles of some kind which will inform the application of principles to cases via casuistry. So by ‘applied ethics’ I really mean casuistry. And so must everyone else, so long as casuistry is defined as “the application of theoretical ethical principles to specific cases”. Usually, however, the term ‘applied ethics’ is taken to emphasise the ‘specific cases’ part of the procedure, the ‘real moral problems’ aspect, referring especially to questions in medical, legal, and social ethics: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, surrogate motherhood, genetic engineering, racism, sexism, pornography, blood sports, animal rights, firearms control, and so on.

The optimistic student may come to applied ethics expecting philosophy to provide the ‘right answers’ to such issues. I hope to show that in one sense this is a completely false hope; in another sense it is half right. The more sceptical student may only expect that the issues may be clarified somewhat. So long as the books he reads or the courses she attends are reasonably competent, this expectation is absolutely right.

The purpose of this article is twofold: (1) To show that an awareness of the basic structure and problems of casuistry can be a great help when tackling real-life ethical issues. (2) To try and discover, through an examination of casuistical method, how far we can expect philosophy to give us ‘the right answers’.

The ‘footnote on casuistry’ of my title refers to a footnote in F.H. Bradley’s essay ‘My Station and Its Duties’. Bradley’s footnote may be read as an ironic ‘Socratic gadfly’ questioning the whole enterprise of applied ethics. Since Bradley is undeservedly little known as a philosopher these days, I shall begin by briefly trying to relate his ethical philosophy to that of his master – Hegel.

I. Bradley’s Footnote

F.H. Bradley was an ‘English Hegelian’, and his views on ethics, expressed in writings like ‘Why Should I Be Moral?’, ‘Duty For Duty’s Sake’, and ‘My Station and Its Duties’, largely follow Hegel’s complex treatment of ethics. Hegel basically attacked Kantian ethics as being too formal, abstract, simplistic and unreal. Hegel sought to show that ethics was an inconsistent sphere, breaking down due to its inner contradictions. Ethics tended to result either in the moral tunnel vision of ‘The Man of Action’ (who could act decisively because he saw only one side of the case) or the moral paralysis of ‘The Beautiful Soul’ (who couldn’t act at all because he saw so many conflicting sides to the case). Hegel’s own solution to this dilemma is expressed in the ‘Evil and Forgiveness’ section of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Bradley’s footnote reads as follows:

“Every act has, of course, many sides, many relations, many ‘points of view from which it can be regarded’, and so many qualities. There are always several principles under which you can bring it, and hence there is not the smallest difficulty in exhibiting it as the realisation of either right or wrong. No act in the world is without some side capable of being subsumed under a good rule, e.g., theft is economy, care for one’s relations, protest against bad institutions, really doing oneself but justice, etc.; and, if all else fails, it probably saves us from doing something worse, and therefore is good. Cowardice is prudence and a duty, courage is rashness and a vice, and so on. The casuist must have little ingenuity if there is anything he fails to justify or condemn according to his order. And the vice of casuistry is that, attempting to decide the particulars of morality by the deductions of the reflective understanding, it at once degenerates into finding a good reason for what you mean to do. You have principles of all sorts, the case has all sorts of sides; which side is the essential side, and which principle is the principle here, rests in the end on your mere private choice, and that is determined by heaven knows what. No reasoning will tell you what the moral point of view here is. Hence the necessary immorality and the ruinous effects of practical casuistry. [……] Our moralists do not like casuistry; but if the current notion that moral philosophy has to tell you what to do is well-founded, then casuistry, so far as I can see, at once follows, or should follow.

But the ordinary moral judgement is not discursive. It does not look to the right or left, and considering the case from all its sides, consciously subsume under one principle. When the case is presented, it fixes on one quality in the act, referring that unconsciously to one principle in which it feels the whole of itself, and sees the whole in a single side of the act. So far as right and wrong are concerned, it can perceive nothing but this quality of this case, and anything else it refuses to try and perceive. Practical morality means singlemindedness, the having one idea; it means what in other spheres would be the greatest narrowness. Point out to a man of simple morals that the case has other sides than the one he instinctively fixes on and he suspects you wish to corrupt him. And so you probably would if you went on.” (F.H. Bradley, ‘My Station and Its Duties’, from Ethical Studies, OUP, 1962).

It seems clear enough what Bradley is up to in this footnote. He is suggesting that casuistry as an ethical procedure is at once both inevitable and futile. He is attempting to undermine ethics along Hegelian lines, encapsulating in this brief passage what can quite properly be called Hegel’s ‘deconstruction’ of ethics in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Bradley is here stating – perhaps overstating? – the argument that ethical issues operating through casuistry are undecidable even from within any one specific ethical or metaphysical framework (such as Christianity, humanism, existentialism, etc.). If we now add to this the fact that different ethical and metaphysical systems will produce quite different chains of casuistry due to their different basic axioms, the possibility of resolving issues in applied ethics, such as abortion, suicide, euthanasia, etc., threatens to become ever more remote.

In order to discover whether there is anything left of applied ethics after Bradley has ‘philosophised with his hammer’, I want to go on to examine the essential nature and workings of casuistry.

II. The Workings of Casuistry

The first thing to notice about any specific casuistry is that it operates along the lines of an axiomatic-deductive system. In an ideal scheme of casuistry, there stands a supreme principle (or principles) which operate(s) as the basic axiom (or axioms). The situation is much clearer and cleaner if there is only one basic axiom, since, if there are two or more axioms with equal authority, then any incompatibility between them may lead to ambiguity at the very beginning of the deductive chain. For example, according to some Christian casuists, ‘love’ and ‘justice’ are both equally basic axioms of Christian morality, yet it is not clear that the equally pressing demands of love and justice are in every case compatible.

So, for the sake of clarity, let’s take a nice and simple single, basic axiom like the Utilitarian Principle of Utility: ‘Act so as to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. From it may be deduced, says the casuist, certain less general (but still fairly general) ethical rules, sometimes called ‘intermediate axioms’. From these, more concrete and local ethical injunctions can be derived until we get right down to specific cases. The intermediate axioms are often regarded as ‘universal virtues’, incumbent on every Utilitarian. In Utilitarianism, such ‘intermediate axioms’ and ‘universal virtues’ would be the rules of Rule Utilitarianism (i.e. certain ‘rules of thumb’ which have been generally observed to promote the ‘greatest happiness’ principle – such as ‘Don’t kill’, ‘Don’t steal’, ‘Respect others’ freedom’, ‘Respect your own freedom’, etc. – and which save the Utilitarian the labour of having to try and deduce every specific case from the generality, vagueness, and abstraction of the basic axiom, the Principle of Utility.)

From these intermediate axioms, we can then deduce right down to specific cases of morality, etiquette and protocol (abortion, euthanasia, shoplifting, picking your nose, etc.).

When and where the rules of the intermediate axioms come into conflict, causing ambiguity as to how to judge a specific case, we have to try and deduce the issue from the basic axiom itself. For example, in the specific case where you’re picking your nose in front of me and I don’t like it, arguably the intermediate axioms concerning ‘respect for one’s own freedom’ and ‘respect for others’ freedom’ are in conflict, and if we want to make an issue of it, what we must do is try and deduce whether your picking your nose is adding to the greatest happiness of the greatest number (i.e. we have to appeal directly to the basic axiom, reverting – in the jargon of Utilitarianism – from Rule to Act Utilitarianism). I don’t claim that this particular example is either resolvable or very important.

If this presentation of casuistry still seems a bit abstract and hard to visualise, perhaps I can try explaining the matter by means of a diagram. This time my example is that of a Christian casuistry, and having presented and exemplified the essential steps in terms of “Basic Axioms – Intermediate Axioms – Specific Cases”, I shall then take a look at the pros and cons of casuistry.

The Pros and Cons of Casuistry

In favour of casuistry it is argued:

(1) Its rational method provides an indispensable instrument for assessing one’s own and others’ behaviour, and so in providing disciplined development towardsthe highest goal or summum bonum.

(2) Casuistry cannot help but sharpen and deepen moral insight and awareness, often through the very fact that it forces us to confront the real ambiguities, tensions, and compromises surrounding so many specific issues.

Against casuistry it is argued:

(1) It inclines towards an over-rigid legalism that goes against the charismatic spirit of Christian ethics. (Maybe Martin Luther’s championing of the ‘voice of God’ in individual conscience against the ‘voices of priests’ was such a protest against casuistical excesses?).

(2) It inclines not towards over-rigid legalism, but towards such over-flexibility and sophistry that no issue is really decidable, and, in Bradley’s words, “the casuist must have little ingenuity if there is anything he fails to justify or condemn according to his order.”

For instance, the student may decide, if he believes his teacher to be an incompetent buffoon, pernicious ideologue, or nihilistic cynic, that his Christian duty is to refuse to listen any further, those intermediate axioms connected with justice and the will to truth and honesty here conflicting with, and overriding, intermediate axioms to do with charity and humility.

The soldier may decide that the Christian end of peace would be better promoted if he was as brutal, or even more brutal, than the enemy – a line of argument which the mediaeval Church seems to have favoured in allowing the use of crossbow quarrels (inflicting particularly nasty wounds) against the infidel but not against fellow- Christians. Arguably, some modern Christians have tried to justify the bombing of Dresden and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki along similar lines.

In order to try and gain some more insight into the pros and cons of casuistry, and its abilities and limitations in resolving issues, I want to describe the application of two different casuistries to a particular issue in applied ethics.

III. Two Casuistries Applied to Euthanasia

Here, I want to sketch the skeleton of two chains of casuistical deduction – a Christian one and a Humanist one – in regard to the specific case of euthanasia or ‘mercy killing’.

Euthanasia breaks down as follows into further specific cases, depending on the type of euthanasia involved:

Voluntary euthanasia – with the consent of the subject.

Involuntary euthanasia – against the wishes of the subject.

Non-voluntary euthanasia – in cases where the subject can neither consent nor decline – e.g. due to infancy, senility, coma, etc.

Active euthanasia – bringing about subject’s death through active intervention.

Passive euthanasia – allowing subject to die; not intervening.

[I owe these distinctions to Robert Campbell, author of Ending Lives, Open University Press].

Beyond this, each particular case of euthanasia will be more specific still, involving further factors such as the personalities involved, their beliefs, their relationships to each other, what each thinks to lose or gain by the death in question, the wider social and economic situation, and so on. All of these factors may alter the case, making it this specific case of euthanasia, and this in turn may affect the casuistical deduction involved, the emphasis of basic or intermediate axioms, the tensions between them, etc.

Sketch of a Humanist Casuistry

Basic Axiom - The right to individual freedom. Humanism usually links an atheistic, materialist metaphysics with a hedonistic psychology: the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The moral and political expression of this position often gives pride of place to an idea of individual sovereignty.

Relevant Middle Axioms - The right of each individual, logically derived from the basic axiom, to decide whether or not to keep on living. Respect for one’s own freedom and happiness. Respect for others’ freedom and happiness.

Specific Cases - (1) Voluntary euthanasia, both active and passive, is a logically consistent theorem, so long as consent is genuine, the ‘helper’ committing the act of euthanasia is truly willing, and the patient is well-informed concerning possibilities of recovery or lessening of pain, etc. (2) Involuntary euthanasia is an inconsistent theorem. It violates the basic axiom. (3) Non-voluntary euthanasia is an inconclusive theorem. Given that here the subject has no capacity for consent, the people contemplating euthanasia must resort to other criteria such as utilitarian expediency, respect for their own freedom, etc.

Sketch of a Christian Casuistry

Basic Axiom(s) - ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Sanctity as the ideal of Christian life. Surrender to God and obedience to His Will.

Relevant Middle Axioms - Faith. Hope. Charity. Humility. Compassion. Respect for God’s Creation and the sanctity of life. Doctrines of Expiatory and Redemptive Suffering.

Specific Cases - (1)Voluntary euthanasia: almost certainly inconsistent. (2) Involuntary euthanasia: inconclusive? (3) Non-voluntary euthanasia: inconclusive? The reason why (2) and (3) are inconclusive theorems – and in some cases (1) may be also – is that euthanasia seems to produce inevitable tension among the intermediate axioms of a Christian casuistry. Nearly all of them go strongly against euthanasia, but two – compassion and charity – strongly favour some cases of ‘mercy killing’. (1) might be an inconclusive theorem in a case where a patient in terrible pain refuses to consent to euthanasia out of a feeling of Christian duty, while those who love the patient urge him or her to consent.

Inevitably I’ve oversimplified matters, but even so, these comparisons suggest the following: (1) So long as we are operating within an agreed ethical/metaphysical framework and sharing the same basic axioms, casuistical deduction can sometimes provide a very strong guide as to the ‘right thing to do’, and so problems of applied ethics can sometimes, within an agreed context, be solved. (2) But where frameworks and axioms are incommensurable or contradictory, no neutral solutions (i.e. solutions without ‘metaphysical commitment’) are possible.

IV. What’s Left of Applied Ethics?

In the light of all this, what remains of applied ethics? No one can doubt that, as a social and intellectual activity, it is very much alive and kicking. Philosophers and public bodies regularly gather to chew the fat over such issues as capital punishment, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and so forth. But the question is not so much whether applied ethics exists but whether or not it has any philosophical right to exist in view of its obvious shortcomings as a problem-solving procedure. So, in conclusion, I want to offer three reasons why applied ethics can and must exist:

  • It can sometimes actually solve problems within an agreed ethical/metaphysical framework.
  • Even where no such framework exists or there is conflict between rival frameworks, the casuistical investigations of pure and applied ethics certainly clarify the issues involved – including the difficulties of resolving them.
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, public commissions and legal decisions still have to go on. It is socially necessary that they do so. One can’t just leave the law on euthanasia hanging in the air on account of the casuistical difficulties involved. By the same token, awareness of the casuistical complexities involved can and should help inform careful legal decisions.

At the same time, it is reasonable and realistic to expect such decisions to be strongly ruled by expediency. Indeed, expediency and compromise are themselves very much the fruit of casuistical inquiry, resulting in both moral shrewdness and hypocrisy – as well as frequent ambiguity as to which is which. This is because the practical casuist sees the case from many conflicting sides (unlike Hegel’s ‘Man of Action’) and yet also sees the need to reach some decision (unlike Hegel’s ‘Beautiful Soul’). That the decision will ever be perfect or acceptable to everyone is usually too much to hope for (which is one message of Hegel’s ‘Evil and Forgiveness’).

In practice, public decisions on contentious issues in applied ethics often reflect a shift of public consensus from one metaphysical/ethical framework to another (as is surely the case where the laws on suicide, abortion, and homosexuality are concerned, reflecting a shift from Christian to secular consensus). In other cases, a ‘judicious compromise’ may be reached, with a care not to offend too much too many interested and conflicting parties (as may be the case with the law on pornography or current U.K. firearms legislation). In other cases, public authority may even seek to lead majority opinion (as the laws on sexism, racism, and capital punishment may do). In yet other cases, the law may merely reflect conflict and bewilderment (as is arguably the case with euthanasia, genetic engineering, or the penalties for rape).

What this means is that although many underlying questions – relating to the provability and truth of contending metaphysical frameworks – cannot be resolved within the sphere of applied ethics, the reality of the issues, and the need for individuals and society to make decisions about them, force us to resort to pragmatism.

© M. Fuller 1994

Mike Fuller lectures in philosophy at Bolton Institute of Higher Education.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X