Something Completely Different: Notes Toward a Burkean Ethics

Paul Lynch, Saint Louis University

In “The Question of Kenneth Burke’s Ethics,” (KB Journal 3.1, 2006), Timothy Crusius asks whether we can “fashion an ethics inspired by Burke’s thought.” Burke himself who goads us to this project. Crusius insists, “ethics is Burke’s first and most recurrent impulse. What we should want and not want, what we should do and avoid doing is Burke’s subject first to last.” Yet Crusius’s choice of the verb fashion reflects the challenge of any such assay. Burke’s ethics are not only eclectic, but they also do not announce themselves as such. Burke also never completed his Ethics of Motives, though there have been recent attempts to reconstruct what such a work might have been.[1] “Whoever would write An Ethic of Motives,” suggests Crusius, “must range far beyond what Burke said.” In addition to discerning Burke’s ethics, we are faced with the problem of placing them since they do not fit neatly within any of the various competing ethical philosophies, which are, as Crusius suggests, “chaotic: too many schools of thought, each entertaining its own assumptions, advancing its own premises, and arriving therefore at conclusions incommensurate with each other.” Thus, any Burkean ethics would inevitably be a reconstruction, Burkean in stance rather than system. Given these mysteries, “the situation provides unusual freedom”; however, as Crusius suggests, “[s]o much freedom is always threatening.” The freedom to discern answers to these questions, however, need be threatening only if we insist that we find the Burkean ethics rather than a Burkean ethics. In this essay, I offer one possible response, aware that should be many others. Ideally, then, any possible Burkean ethics would be fashioned in such a way that it could account for other possibilities.

In that spirit, I will argue that casuistry offers a methodology that might meet Crusius’s criteria for a Burkean ethics. Casuistry will be familiar to Burkeans: Burke invokes the practice most notably in his “casuistic stretching” (Attitudes 230), and the term also appears in the introduction to A Grammar of Motives. A Rhetoric of Motives, moreover, includes Burke’s endorsement of Pascal’s attack on Jesuit casuistry. These references make up maybe ten or twelve pages of the Burkean corpus, so it would be folly to insist that Burke is a casuist, or to insist that Burke’s ethics are simply equivalent to casuistry.  But if Crusius is accurate or even plausible in his sketch of a Burkean ethics, then that ethics has casuistic tendencies. The kind of comparison I mean to make has been called a “creative equivocation” in Michael Leff’s 1989 “Burke’s Ciceronianism” (n.2, 125). One of Leff’s reviewers offered a useful distinction for describing Burke’s influences. We can say either that Burke has“read and digested what [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] has said, profited from it, incorporated it into his own work,” or that Burke “shares fundamental presuppositions, habits of thought etc. with [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] which would have manifested themselves had [Cicero, Aristotle, or Gorgias] never existed” (n.2, 125). The second type is what the reviewer calls “creative equivocation,” and it is this kind of analogy I want to draw. Certainly one could make the first claim: there is no doubt that Burke has read casuistry (and Pascal’s critique) and profited from it and incorporated it into his work (sometimes with contradictory and muddled results). But for the purposes of furthering the discussion that Crusius has started, I’m more interested in the second claim.[2] Crusius is arguing that Burke has fundamental presuppositions and habits of thought regarding ethics, and I am arguing that these are casuistic.

My argument is that casuistry offers a methodology—a crucial term for a Burkean ethics (Attitudes 232)—that embraces rhetorical notions of virtue while avoiding Platonic metaphysics. It is an ethics that avoids the extremities of relativism and rigorism, a paradoxical ethics that is both kairotic and continuous. This may seem oxymoronic (or, as Crusius suggests by way of Monty Python, something completely different), and certainly there are risks in forwarding casuistry, an art whose historical infamy actually exceeds that of rhetoric.[3] Burke was keenly aware of casuistry’s nefarious reputation and was willing to second Pascal’s condemnation almost uncritically. Nevertheless, casuistry offers a way of articulating a version of Burkean ethics that does not fall for Plato’s heads-I-win-tails-you-lose, question-begging demand for rhetoric’s virtue. Casuistry is an ethics that agrees with Burke’s assessment of virtue and vice: “A society is sound only if can prosper on its vices, since virtues are by definition rare and exceptional” (Counter-Statement 114). Rather than prospering on virtue, casuistry is an ethics that prospers on what capital-P philosophy has often seen as vices—the vices of partiality, particularity, and probability (in other words, the vices of rhetoric).

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In discerning a Burkean ethics—especially in the problems of incommensurability and the risks of freedom—Crusius implicitly lays the groundwork for a casuistic answer. Casuistry is a method of ethical reasoning for resolving problems in which the usual rules or procedures conflict. In such a situation, a person feels torn by competing duties or obligations. Lying is considered wrong, yet we often lie to children to spare them what we think are truths too difficult for them to bear. Stealing is considered wrong, yet many church doctors argued that the poor could take what they needed in order to survive. Killing is considered wrong, yet we recognize exceptions for self-defense. This last problem, perhaps the thorniest casuistic conundrum, motivated Cicero’s On Duties (44 BCE), Book III of which is thought to be the world first manual of casuistry. With the recent assassination of Caesar looming in the background, Cicero asks, “what greater crime can there be than to kill not merely another man, but even a close friend? Surely then, anyone who kills a tyrant, although he is a close friend, has committed himself to crime? But it does not seem so to the Roman people, which deems that deed the fairest of all splendid deeds. Did the beneficial, therefore, overcome honorableness? No indeed, for honorableness followed upon what benefited” (III.19). Here, as he does elsewhere in Book III, Cicero argues that certain actions are both honorable and beneficial. They must be, for Cicero insists that what is beneficial cannot even compare to what is honorable, much less trump it (III.18). But Cicero recognizes that there are sometimes reasons to doubt “the nature of the action one in considering” (III.18).“What,” Cicero asks, “if a good man were to be able to rob of his clothes Phalaris, a cruel and monstrous tyrant, to prevent himself from dying of cold? Might he not do it?” (III.29). Throughout his discussion of these cases, Cicero relies on a notion of prudentia, or practical wisdom, whose ancestor is the Greek phronesis.[4] At the same time, he is careful not to abandon the honorable in pursuit of the beneficial. Thus we see the basic tensions of casuistry: how do people maintain their moral obligations while at the same time remaining sensitive to circumstances?

After Cicero, casuistry’s case-based reasoning continued to develop in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas, who argued many of the usual casuistic questions. Was lying ever permissible? Could the poor steal food when they were hungry? Under what circumstances was killing not murder? Augustine and Aquinas were hardly casuists, but their writing did contribute to the development of the art, an art that become all the more important during the reformation. Eventually the practice reached its “High Period” in the years between 1556-1656 (Jonsen and Toulmin 153). During this time, the practice produced “immense, elaborate volumes filled with minute distinctions and detailed, sometimes contorted, arguments […] reminiscent of the art and architecture of the Baroque era” (145). Jonsen and Toulmin go on to argue that these volumes reflect “the irruption into Christian culture of the secular as reality, and as value. The dominance of the spiritual and the superiority of the religious over the lay state were no longer seen as obvious” (145). In short, casuists understood that Christians were living in a world undergoing rapid and fundamental change. 

No one understood this problem better than the Society of Jesus. Though the Jesuits were neither the first nor the only casuists, they have become most closely associated with the art (hence the derisive connotations of the term Jesuitical). As with Cicero, the Jesuits’ particular historical context made them ideally suited for casuistry, and indeed the special character of their ministry can be described as casuistic. Jesuit ministry emerged as part of the Counter-Reformation, and their ministry was driven by the principle of accommodation.[5] In The First Jesuits, John J. O’Malley, S.J., argues that the Society thought its preaching, ministry, and teaching ought to “accommodate to circumstances and to the particular needs and situation of the persons to whom the Jesuits ministered” (81). Because this principle guided all that they did, their casuistry and rhetoric informed each other: “at the center of casuistry was the rhetorical principle of accommodation to times, places, persons, and other circumstance” (O’Malley 145). As Jonsen and Toulmin suggest (and as O’Malley echoes), “It not surprising to find the Jesuits, who were dedicated to teaching classical rhetoric in their colleges, become the leading exponents of casuistry” (88). The Jesuits were adept at massaging their messages for the particular audiences to whom those messages were delivered. But the very notion of accommodation suggests both the rewards and the risks of such a project. Their willingness to shape their appeals for different hearers made them powerful preachers and influential thinkers. It was just this willingness, however, that spurred the attack of Pascal, who argued that the Jesuits’ doctrine of accommodation was actually the accommodation of virtue to vice. Pascal’s Provincial Letters 1656 forever fixed casuistry’s infamy and made the word Jesuit itself became a synonym for deceit. Even today, Escobar, the name of a famous Jesuit casuist, “remains a synonym for ‘equivocator’ or ‘prevaricator’ in contemporary French dictionaries” (Sampson 74). After the Letters, casuistry continued, and its practice were maintained and adapted even in post-reformation England.  But the emergence of the Enlightenment was no kinder to casuistry than it was to rhetoric. Cartesian philosophy served to move ethics toward “moral geometry,” the notion that a set of principles can consistently produce correct judgments. Kant (1724-1804) and Comte (1798-1857) also contributed to this geometric shift: Kant, argues James A Tallmon, was “looking for a supreme principle upon which to ground moral law” (379), and Comte went even further and tried to create a “social physics” by which society could be “organized” according to scientific certainty (380-381). Such asituational systematicity is antithetical to casuistry’s basic assumptions.

Those assumptions begin with the idea that certain situations offer problems that cannot be resolved by direct appeal to principles or rules. The word casuistry itself comes from the Latin casus, or “case,”and the etymology suggests casuistry’s guiding assumption: rather than solve a perplexing problem by appealing to principles, casuistry begins by looking at cases. In The Abuse of Casuistry, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin define casuistry as

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

Jonsen and Toulmin’s arguments were central to the revival of casuistry within medical ethics, the field that has seen the most vigorous contemporary discussion of case-based reasoning. Thorough the late eighties and early nineties, medical ethicists debated the usefulness of casuistry for deciding perplexing medical cases.[6] Casuistry’s proponents argued that the method could provide a means of articulating solutions to cases that invoked competing moral claims and ethical solutions. While there was a great deal of pushback against the revival of casuistry, the discussion revealed the feeling that clinicians “cannot afford the luxury of awaiting the development of an ethical theory capable of routing this contentious field by force of argument alone” (Arras “Principles,” 989). Thus, some clinicians sought an ethical how rather than an ethical what.

This move from what to how recognizes that people behave within situations, situations that affect their attempts to act morally. In this turn toward paradigm rather than principle, casuists recognize that applying the rules will often cause more harm than bending them. This is not to say that are not certain situations in which the rules simply apply. If someone steals your car, call a cop. But if someone steals a loaf of bread because he cannot otherwise eat, it makes more sense to call a casuist. A casuist would advocate for the starving man on the grounds that his miserable circumstances left him no choice (a moral rigorist, on the other hand, would insist that a crime is a crime is a crime). In making decisions about particular cases, the casuist does not reject moral strictures (as some of casuistry’s opponents would insist). Instead, casuists might decide the man is under no moral obligation to make restitution or that the punishments and penalties against stealing do not apply with the usual force.  They would come to this decision by comparing the given case against a taxonomy of previous similar cases. Casuists are still motivated by principles; otherwise the case of the starving thief would not claim the casuist’s attention. If the casuist (and the starving man himself) did not feel that it was just to sustain oneself but unjust to steal—if, in other words, people felt no moral obligations—there would be no need for casuistry. Nor does the casuist say that stealing is everywhere and always permitted. Rather, the casuist says that the laws against stealing should not apply with the same force in this and only this particular case. When casuists confront a perplexing moral problem, they first ask, “What issue that makes this case hard to resolve?” Then, “Have we seen similar cases before? What did we do then?” Finally, they will offer a judgment that lasts only as long as the present situation does. The moment the starving man has a legitimate way to obtain food, the casuistic judgment ceases to have force.

Casuists follow rhetoricians in situating their art within the practical sphere. Indeed, Jonsen and Toulmin draw a distinction between theoretical and practical arguments in a way that rhetoricians will recognize from Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument.[7] Theoretical argument, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, resembles syllogistic reasoning (34). Applied to ethics, theoretical argument is, in Crusius’s words, an attempt to “abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good.” This kind of argument works for analytic logic, but it will not work for anything more complicated (or interesting). Practical reasoning, on the other hand, eschews universal starting points and instead begins with what is happening in the “present fact situation” (Jonsen and Toulmin 35). Casuists will then examine that situation according to “general warrants based on similar precedents,” and draw “provisional conclusions about the present case” (35). The purpose of this comparison is to discern both the essential similarities and substantive differences. “Exceptional circumstances” will create further distinctions that will alter the judgment (35). Rather than abstracting rules from situations—rules that may not fit the next complex situation that emerges—casuists render judgments that apply only to the case at hand.

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Though I do not suggest we can draw a direct equation between casuistry and Burkean ethics, I do think casuistry meets Crusius’s criteria for a Burkean ethics in particular (and perhaps a rhetorical sort of ethics in general). Crusius writes, “morality is always a response to a situation. If you abstract from these situations, what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles. But this is precisely what we Burkeans wouldn’t or shouldn’t do,” which is “what philosophy has almost always done, abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good.” To abstract from such diverse situations would be to create permanent solutions to temporary problems (which is also, by the way, a good definition of suicide). Because casuists realize that no situation can ever reappear in all its particulars, they do not pretend to discover what is really and always right and good. Rather, they attempt to discern what is best (as in better in relation to all other options) in a given situation. The art of casuistry embraces kairos, which Crusius defines as “a timely and appropriate response to a particular situation that we will never encounter in all its particulars again.” Because we cannot “render morality coherent”—that is, predictable and systematic—and because philosophic abstractions can distort (and even destroy) morality, we must find an ethics that changes as the situation changes.

At the same time, Crusius wants “an ethic of situations” rather than a “situational ethics”—that is, something that is responsive without being wholly relative.[8] An ethics of situations would allow both kairotic flexibility and situated continuity. It would offer a Burkean balance between permanence and change. Burke’s notion of “casuistic stretching,” which appears in Attitudes Toward History and is his most explicit and detailed use of casuistry as a critical tool, suggests the kind of ethics of situations that Crusius seeks. “By casuistic stretching,” he writes, “one introduces new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles. Thus, we saw the church permitting the growth of investment in a system of law that specifically forbade investment” (Attitudes 229). Presumably, he is referring to the debate over usury, the lending of money at interest. It is not surprising that he would focus upon usury, which had become a central focus of casuistic thinking by the advent of the Renaissance. Jonsen and Toulmin recount that the Church originally defined usury as lending at any interest, and it had forbidden the practice on the grounds that it allowed profit without labor (183). Loans were permissible for those in need and only if no interest were charged. Eventually, the Church exorcised usury by “misnomer-ing” it “theft” (183). In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theologians developed a maxim against casuistry, memorable for a play upon words that might well have piqued Burke’s interest: “mutuum est quasi de meo tuum (a loan is, as it were, my property made yours). The Latin word for loan, mutuum, was defined by an etymological pun, meum (mine) becomes tuum (yours)” (183-84). A loan was no longer mine by definition; thus, to charge interest for it would be like charging interest on someone else’s property.

As economies changed, however, the perception (and construction) of usury began to change. Jonsen and Toulmin write, “The usury prohibition made its appearance in an era when the economy of Europe was largely composed of subsistence farming” (185). Emerging mercantile economies, on the other hand, invited a new understanding of how lending might be licit or illicit. The Church recognized the societas, or the commercial partnership intended to make profit, long before the mercantile age (185), but mercantilism put new pressure on the original strictures against usury. In fact, “the chief canonical document on the legitimacy of the societas was entitled Navaganti: that is, ‘to one setting out to sea’” (185). Thus, the explosion of maritime commercial activity forced changes upon the economy, and thus church doctors faced a choice: They could condemn those who engaged in this activity, or they could seek ways to introduce new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles. They could remain pure. But as Burke notes in Rhetoric, the “paradox of purity”—in which “Pure Personality would be the same as no personality” (Rhetoric 35)—“pure engagement: with the new economy would mean no engagement with the new economy. 

Partnership now helped to draw the distinction between shared risk and profit without labor. “The crucial moral difference between loan and societas rested on the sharing of risk. By introducing the concept of risk as a modality in the argument, the first step toward revision of the paradigm was taken” (Jonsen and Toulmin 185). Eventually, argument over casuistry necessitated a special commission to the Fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1580, and the commission engaged in casuistic analysis of particular cases (189-90). Again, their purpose was not to rationalize any new behavior.  Rather, “as each new case appeared [...] it was measured against the relevant paradigmatic case: a loan made to someone in distress. [...] How did each of the new cases differ from the paradigm? Did the structure, function, and purpose of the new arrangements include morally relevant circumstances? If so, did they excuse or justify the activity?” (191). As this method of analysis suggests, casuistic stretching is not relativism insofar as the stretch is always anchored to a previous understanding or case. Casuists of the past and the present do not reinvent the ethical wheel with every new situation. Such an approach also does not lend itself to abstraction, for no case ever reappears in all its particulars; particularity, however, does not obviate similarity. Cases are compared with each other not only in order to discern what is different, but also what is the same. While the contrast brings to light the relevant particular features, the comparison ensures a certain ethical continuity.

In coming to a new understanding of usury, casuists relied on the notions of damnum emergens (“loss occurring”) and lucrum cessans (“profit ceasing”), in an attempt to account for situations in which a loan caused the lender to lose money either though a failed investment or the inability to access capital while it was tied up in a loan. Eventually, these definitions of risk allowed casuists to define usury as St. Alphonsus Ligouri did: “interest taken where there is no just title to profit” (193). Ligouri’s definition offers a consummation of faithfulness to old principles within acceptance of new principles. But the faithfulness to old principles is more than “theoretical.” In spite of the shift in paradigm, some ethical absolutes remained: it was still wrong to charge interest to one in distress. But if the borrower were not in distress, then the casuists had to consider the particular circumstances of the case. Casuists thus recognized that a universal prohibition, while possessing the virtue of rigorous simplicity, and absolutist purity, could not survive contact with the world. Such simplicity and purity also risked making human judgment obsolete. In a society managed by unwavering adherence to rules, there would be no need for prudentia or phronesis, since we would always know what to do. Seen in this light, casuistry becomes a means not of enervating morality, but rather of maintaining it by engaging in judgment. Renaissance casuists—obligated to live the real world—realized that they had to prosper on vice by applying the situation to the rules as much as applying the rules to the situation.

Words like “recognize” and “realize” may, at first glance, suggest a “naïve verbal realism” (Burke, Language 5), but casuistry recognizes that what we think of as “real” “has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol systems” (5). Stretching the definition of usury from “loan at interest” to “loan at exorbitant interest” reflects not simply a passive act of “recognition,” but instead a creative act of stretching. In Casuistry and Modern Ethics, Richard B. Miller argues that casuistry is a “poetics of practical reasoning” because “practical reasoning is not merely a passive endeavor in which the mind serves as a blank slate. Rather, the mind contributes something in the process of reasoning. It plays a creative, inventive role, requiring us to use our moral imagination. We ‘make’ insofar as we must ‘make sense’ of experience, confronted as we are with the variables of a situation” (224). Here, we begin to see some of the basic similarities between rhetoric, poetics, and casuistry. Rhetoric and poetic do not merely persuade others to assent to “reality”; they both shape reality. So does casuistry. In this sense, casuistry is not only a poetics of practical reasoning, but also a rhetoric of practical reasoning in which the casuist sees the available means of decision-making in any given case.

To Pascal, however, this kind change merely reflected prospering on vice in the basest sense, as he made clear in his Provincial Letters. The letters on casuistryfeature a Jesuit interlocutor who is eager to reveal the mysteries of casuistry to a nonplussed Pascal. In their conversation on usury, the Jesuit tells Pascal that one must only utter certain words to avoid sin. “The person from whom the loan is asked, must answer, then, in this manner: I have got no money to lend; I have got a little, however, to lay out for an honest and lawful profit” (422). Pascal appears to be accusing the Jesuit of a certain kind of casuistic stretching. By refusing to use the word “lend,” and instead using the phrase “lay out,” the would-be usurer does indeed employ “mysterious words,” as Pascal calls them (421). “It would be downright usury,” quotes the father, “To take interest from the borrower, if we should exact it as due in point of justice; but if only exacted as due in point of gratitude, it is not usury” (422). To Pascal, shifting the terms did nothing to alter the reality. Sin is sin whatever it is called. Yet Pascal is writing a polemic, not a treatise, and occasionally he shifts the grounds of his argument in order to score points. While he may at one moment accuse the Jesuits of using too many words, at the next he will accuse them of using too few. “Usury,” the Jesuit goes on to say, “according to our fathers, consists in little more than the intention of taking the interest as usurious” (422). For Pascal, this tautology represents the essential vacuity of their arguments. For Jonsen and Toulmin, however, the change in the meaning of “usurious” represents something more like casuistic stretching. “The casuists did not concede their novel points merely at the insistence of imperious rulers, avaricious prelates or greedy bankers: they sought, in the midst of the economic pressures, to bring to light the morally relevant circumstances that would permit meaningful moral discriminations” (194). In this sense, the accommodation of virtue to vice was an attempt to make virtue operate in the world: rather than letting abstract virtue float above concrete situations, casuistry demands that virtue interact with situations, even at the risk of encountering vice.

Still, Burke seems to share Pascal’s concern. In the Rhetoric, he discusses, and even celebrates, Pascal’s seventh letter, in which Pascal attacks the Jesuit casuistry on permissible killing. As Burke notes, the seventh letter, and indeed the Provincial Letters themselves, were “hilarious and devastating” (Rhetoric 157), and their publication caused a sensation in French society. Even Voltaire thought the Provincial Letters one of the best books he had ever read. Because the Jesuits were powerful enemies, however, Pascal wrote the letters anonymously, and this circumstance occasions his central rhetorical conceit, in which an innocent believer asks a more worldly Jesuit father about Jesuit doctrines. This allows Pascal to maintain the appearance that the cleric is simply hoisting himself on his own petard. “You know,” says the father, “that the ruling passion of [gentlemen] is ‘the point of honor,’ which is perpetually driving them into acts of violence apparently quite at variance with Christian piety; so that, in fact, they would be almost all of them excluded from our confessionals had not our fathers relaxed a little from the strictness of religion, to accommodate themselves to the weakness of humanity” (Pascal 402). Here, Pascal is attacking what came to be known as “The Case of the Insulted Gentlemen,” which produced a casuistry that appeared to allow a person of rank to kill a social inferior in return for a slap (Jonsen and Toulmin 216). This case “appeared in the history of casuistry for a brief moment, was entertained as probable opinion, and quickly vanished” (216). Yet it remained long enough for Pascal to use it as point of attack.

Pascal’s central target is the notion of “directing the intention, which simply consists in [the would-be sinner’s] proposing to himself, as the end of his actions, some allowable object” (404). Thus, an insulted gentleman cannot say he is going to the park for a duel, but rather for a stroll. If he happens to meet his enemy there, he may be forced to defend himself, “for what moral evil is there in one stepping into a field, taking a stroll in expectation of meeting a person, and defending one’s self in the event of being attacked?” (407). Certainly the directing of intention could be abused for such nefarious purposes. But it also allowed more just responses to life-threatening situations. If the gentleman were set upon by bandits, he could kill in defense of himself, as long as his intention was merely self-preservation. The question of permissible killing also raised the doctrine of “double effect,” in which Aquinas distinguished between multiple effects of the same act (Jonsen and Toulmin 221-22). If a police officer fires a weapon in response to gunfire, and his intended effect is to stop the attacker from firing again, killing the attacker cannot be called murder. If shoots in anger, or when there were other means of disabling the attacker, then the killing is not longer licit. (Whether or not it is then murder would depend on a host of other circumstances.) “Death by cop,” in which a mentally ill or suicidal people attempt to lure police officers into shooting them, would present very thorny problems for this casuistry. Burke was concerned with just such problems of misidentification, as he notes in “The Rhetorical Situation.” There is a “kind of deceptive identification whereby an individual who may be personally modest and unassuming becomes deceptively aggrandized by thoughts of his citizenship in a powerful nation” (“Rhetorical” 269-70). Thus, Burke learns to drive a car, and is “easily tempted to mistake these mechanical powers for our very own” (269). One might say that the driver casuistically stretches himself to include the car so thoroughly that he thinks its speed is his speed. Ironically enough, he may prove himself right when he finally wraps himself around a tree. Likewise, it is a dangerous for a police officer to think that the power of a gun is his power. Surely, as British comedian Eddie Izzard has noted, it may be that guns don’t kill people, but the gun helps. Here, a casuistic examination is precisely what’s needed to see this otherwise unnoticed double effect.

Casuists found the roots of the double effect idea in Cicero’s interpretation of Roman law, the early Church fathers, and the Gospels themselves; moreover, Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas had all contributed to the theory of justifiable killing  (Jonsen and Toulmin 217-219). In other words, contrary to both Pascal’s and Burke’s reading of this casuistry, it was not mere “rhetorical convenience,” nor was it mere accommodation of, in Burke’s words, “easygoing people” (Rhetoric 156). Further, as Burke notes, the Jesuits exposed themselves to this attack by their own “processional enterprise,” in which they “speculated zealously on all kinds of cases” (157). Thus, some casuists had argued that killing in return for a slap was “speculatively probable, but not to be admitted in practice” (qtd. in Jonsen and Toulmin 226). Other casuists “quickly demolished the doctrine by showing that the consequences of the act could not be divorced from the assessment of the act itself” (227). In short, the casuists probed the argument for weaknesses and dismissed them when they were discovered. Burke, it must be said, doesn’t appear to see this, and contemptuously dismisses all other applications of the “Jesuit trick” (Rhetoric 157). Yet the casuists were practicing casuistic stretching to the letter. Burke admits, “casuistic stretching is beyond all possibility of ‘control by elimination,’”; therefore, “[t]he best that can be done is to make its workings apparent and constant” (Attitudes 230). We might say, then, that the casuists had practiced casuistic stretching. In following the arguments on permissible killing the Jesuits made the working of their casuistry apparent and constant and thus had left themselves vulnerable to Pascal’s critique.

All ethical systems and ethical situations must be subjected to this discussion because humans are “Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy” or “Moved by a sense of order” (Language 15). This sense of order reveals a tendency to look upward toward abstraction (rather than around us in situation) for our ethics. Little wonder, then, that we might initially prefer theoretical reasoning and its major premises as model for guidance. Yet we are also “rotten with our own perfection” (Language 16), a perfection that can cause us great suffering (Language 18). We are goaded by the desire to perfect the very orders that make us rotten. The judge who would pursue the starving man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy and likely to rot in his own perfection; his inability to disturb the order of things is tragic.

The way to respond to this tragedy, writes Crusius, is with comedy: “Comedy supplies our goal, Burke’s ad bellum purificandum, ‘toward the purification of war.’ Instead of solemnly undertaking to eliminate it, we’ll take the comic route of ‘appreciating’ it instead. We will smile or laugh at our own and everybody else’s inconsistency because we know that morality cannot be any more consistent than situations are.” Jean-Francois Lyotard makes the same casuistic observation in Just Gaming: “when the question of what justice consists in is raised, the answer is: ‘It remains to be seen in each case,’ and always in humor, but also in worry, because one is never certain that one has been just, or that one can ever be just” (Lyotard and Thebaud 99). Separated, as we are, from our natural condition by devices of our own making, our options become tragedy or comedy. Comedy is more casuistic in that it doesn’t seek to eliminate vice through unyielding rules and systems. Casuistry also accepts the comic (and somewhat worried) recognition that our inconsistency does not reveal moral decay, as Alasdair MacIntyre’s complains: “We are Platonic perfectionists in saluting gold medalists in the Olympics, utilitarians in applying the principle of triage to the wounded in war, Lockeans in affirming rights over property; Christians in idealizing charity, compassion, and equal moral worth; and followers of Kant and Mill in affirming personal autonomy” (qtd. in Crusius). For MacIntyre, this inconsistency should lead us to rebuild our moral foundations, as he argues in After Virtue. For a casuist or Burkean ethicist, this inconsistency simply reveals that different situations call for different kinds of responses.

Yet the accusation of moral relativism lingers. The monist, rigorist notion of ethics has dominated the conversation for so long that even rhetoricians should not be surprised if they initially agree with MacIntyre that our ethics are a mess. As Crusius suggests, “[s]o much freedom is always threatening.” It would be easier to say, “I’m a Platonist” or “I’m a Kantian.” A moral rigorist keeps to the via tutior, the safer way. A casuist, however, acknowledges that practical problems are too complicated for one system to work all the time. Nevertheless, the spirit of hierarchy continues to goad us to look at MacIntyre’s list and choose one. Crusius acknowledges this tendency in his second criteria for a Burkean ethics: “an ethic of motives will be critical in the sense of having a depth dimension. Because we know what we want, limiting conflict to words, we’ll want to expose and criticize moral convictions and values that lead to war.”[9] The “depth dimension” of a Burkean ethics can discern the conclusions to which our language jumps. Even if one insists on a monist approach to ethics, being conscious of it at least can make the monism a subject for dialogue. The point, then, is not to become a Platonist or a Kantian, but rather to subject those theories to dialogue in order to discern how and why we are moved by them.

Crusius’s third condition for a Burkean ethics is that it be embodied. Recognizing this embodiment, situating ethics in this way, is more likely to reveal the contradictions that necessitate an ethics of situations. In his Conscience and Its Problems, theologian and casuist Kenneth E. Kirk casts the most perplexing ethical problems as conflicts between duty and desire: “Patriotism may urge a man to fight for his country in a cause which conscience […] cannot wholly endorse. The solidarity of his political party may seem to demand of him silence upon a point of policy against which on all other grounds he feels himself bound to protest” (320). In the face of war, such disunities can be happy events. A moral rigorist might attempt to “solve” these problems. As Crusius notes, “most traditional philosophy has tried to approach ethics abstractly and formally, as if it were an exercise in pure reason alone.” But Kirk’s examples posit human beings—each with needs and desires, virtues and vices—who confront competing goods—loyalty to one’s community versus loyalty to one’s conscience. To insist on “pure reason alone,” to disembody ethics in a way that denies rhetoric and its embrace of situation, only makes it easier for a citizen to set aside his objections and fight “patriotically,” or a politician to set aside her conscience and “get on board.”

Finally, Crusius writes, “an ethic of motives must be ecological in Burke’s extended sense of the term.” Crusius insists that Burke does mean ecological in the usual, natural environment sense, but rather that “a Burkean ethics will be a more or less constant counter-statement, as Burke’s first book was.” If one’s default position is the via tutior, there can be no counter-statement because there can be no countering. But counter-statement works both ways. If one’s default position is liberty over loyalty, then there can be no counter-statement because there can be no statement in the first place. Only one with some sense of obligation to the community will bother telling the community where it’s gone wrong. Recently, we have all had to remind ourselves that dissent is patriotic. Eventually—if we develop a Burkean, ecological, rhetorical ethics—we will have to remind ourselves that patriotism is patriotic. Only an ethics of counter-statement can shift these positions from the weaker to the stronger argument, depending on the case, depending on the situation.

To Crusius’s comedic, deep, embodied, and ecological criteria, I would add only one: methodological. Burke tries to allay his own worry about casuistry by insisting that the resources of casuistic stretching “must be transcended by the explicit conversion of a method into a methodology. The difference between casuistry as a method and casuistry as a methodology is the difference between mystification and clarification, between the concealing of strategy (ars celare artem) and the description of a strategy (criticism as explanation)” (Attitudes 232). This distinction between the mystification and clarification (in addition to suggesting that Burke read Pascal) suggests that Burke still finds the art suspicious, and it hard to blame him for that. Pascal’s criticisms were hardly unfounded, and centuries of negative associations can prove difficult to overcome, as rhetoricians know only too well. As rhetoricians have discovered, there’s no avoiding the risk of rhetoric; like casuistry, it is an art the can be abused. But Burke’s insistence on methodology goes right to the heart of the problem before us, which is how we manage to distinguish between clarification and mystification.

The usual fear about rhetoric and casuistry is that they are species of moral relativism. Rhetoricians have spent a lot of time and energy challenging the relativist accusation by rejecting the design of Plato’s question-begging accusation. The same defense can be offered for casuistry: as an ethics of situations, casuistry rejects the notion that morality happens outside of situation. But for many rhetoricians, the fear of casuistry is not the fear of relativism. Rather, it is the fear of rigorism. A Nietzschean aphorism best articulates this fear. “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity” (Basic Writings 470). The question, then, is whether casuistry can offer a methodology that avoids the rigor (mortis) of system while maintaining its integrity. Even if it can demonstrated that casuistry is not simply a(moral) rationalization, we still have before us the challenge of demonstrating that casuistry is not simply (a)moral regimentation. Some rhetoricians, unlike some of their capital-P philosophy counterparts, might prefer wizardry to theology, harlotry to purity, chicanery to sincerity, though always in humor, but also in worry. If we are to rely on casuistry to articulate a rhetorical ethics, then casuistry cannot become a system for producing good morals. Rhetoric is not looking for a more perfect ethical machine, a machine that would eventually mystify morality by appearing to remove judgment from human beings in order to place it in a nonhuman(e) procedure. In fact, it is not looking for “an” ethics, if by the article “an” is meant a system or a theory. If rhetoric is to have an ethics at all, it should only be a way of articulating—or inventing—our response to situations.

Burke insists that we can rely on casuistic stretching only if we turn it into a methodology rather than a method, a choice that demands working “at every turn, by reference to the ‘collective revelation’ of accumulated critical lore” (Philosophy 68). Methodology, therefore, means not only continuous discussion of one’s own thinking, but discussion of that thinking through the language of other peoples’ thinking. Methodology demands the parlor, full of point and counterpoint, in which “revelations,” emerge from the group rather than striking the individual. While the Baroque nature of high casuistry contributed to its reputation for Byzantine manipulation, it also suggests the babble of voices demanded in methodology. The complaint that something was “written by committee” makes no sense in casuistry, for it is only through a committee that a casuistic decision can emerge. Casuistry is the art of the conference table rather than the auditorium; its rhetoric is dialogical rather than monolingual.

In the appropriately titled “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics,” Albert Jonsen articulates a casuistic methodology. He begins by arguing that casuistic reasoning is a form of rhetorical reasoning. Casuists of the high period, he observes, knew their Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, and in them found “a method of reasoning or, better, of arguing that was suited to cases. They were aware that practical reasoning has rules of logic that differ from the logic of scientific reasoning” (Jonsen 297). But the casuists’ approach to cases included other moves, as well. Casuistry, Jonsen suggests, offers a tripartite methodology that includes three basic considerations: morphology, taxonomy, and kinetics, and it is these three moves that resemble a putative casuistic and Burkean methodology. By “morphology,” Jonsen refers to the initial interpretation of a given case. “The interplay of circumstances and maxims constitute the structure of a case. Thus, we can speak of the morphology or the perception of form and structure” (299). Rhetoricians will recognize the importance of circumstances and maxims in approaching a given situation; like rhetoric, casuistry relies on paradigm, analogy, and maxim (Jonsen and Toulmin 257). “The work of casuistry,” writes Jonsen, “is to determine which maxim should rule the case and to what extent. To what extent means under what constellation of circumstances, for certain changes of circumstances will lead to another maxim emerging as the more significant” (298). This first move, then, reveals the difference between practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning. In the former, the particulars of the case will send the casuists back to drawing board. “In casuistry,” writes Jonsen, “the reflection bears upon the relation between maxims and circumstances: the former are appreciated as valid, but limited rules for the good conduct of life; the latter report the actual conditions of living through particular situation” (303). The casuist, moreover, is aware that interpretation is a poetic act as much as a perceptive act (Miller 224); therefore, maxims cannot have deductive force. They can always be trumped and rearranged in light of circumstances.

The next step for the casuist, according to Jonsen, begins to reveal how critical lore is accumulated: “One of the crucial steps in the casuistic method is the lining up of cases in a certain order” (301); in other words, casuistry proceeds by taxonomy. Where the question of morphology echoes the rhetorical stasis question of conjecture—asking “What is this case? What is in play here?—the question of taxonomy begins to move the discussion toward definition—“What kind of case is this? How is it like or unlike previous cases?” In answering these questions, the casuist relies on taxonomy to place the given case “into its moral context and reveals the weight of argument that might countervail presumption of rightness of wrongness” (302). This definition step begins to reveal the likenesses between the present case and previous cases that will guide the casuist toward a probable judgment. It must be acknowledged as casuistry’s most dangerously systematic step: as Jonsen notes, taxis, the root of taxonomy, “is the Greek word meaning the drawing up or marshalling of soldiers in a battle line. Just as an Athenian general might place his strongest and most aggressive soldiers in the forefront of the battle line, so the casuist seeks out those cases, within the type, that demonstrate the most obviously, unarguably wrong (or right) instance” (301). Reading this description, I move from humor to worry, and I cannot help thinking again of Nietzsche: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people” (Portable 46-7). Casuistic stretching implies the kind of comparison taxonomy makes, yet it also formalizes it in a way that seems at first glance too systemic for comfort. Putting cases into slots sounds like another way of applying rules. For his part, Burke appears comfortable with taxonomy, or at least aware that taxonomy lies beyond all possibility of control by elimination. “Social structures,” he observes in “Equipment for Living,” “give rise to ‘type’ situations, subtle subdivisions of the relationships involved in competitive and cooperative acts” (Philosophy 293-94). These types invoke taxonomy, as we see when Burke lays out his taxonomy of proverbs (Philosophy 293-295). His taxonomy does marshal armies of proverbs, but this marshalling is apparent and constant.

Moreover, and most importantly, it is mobile. Jonsen calls his third methodological move kinetics. “I mean by [kinetics] an understanding of the way in which one case imparts a kind of moral movement to other cases, as a moving billiard ball imparts motion to the stationary one it hits” (303). Jonsen’s notion of kinetics is echoed in Edward H. Levi’s Introduction to Legal Reasoning. In that work, Levi describes a process that is casuistic: “The basic pattern of legal reasoning is reasoning by example. It is reasoning from case to case. It is a three-step process described by the doctrine of precedent in which a proposition descriptive of the first case is made into a rule of law and then applied to a next similar situation” (1-2). This process, however, does not mean that the examination of precedent eventuates in hard rules. “If this were the doctrine,” he writes, “it would be disturbing to find that the rules change from cases to case and are remade with each case. Yet this change in the rules is the indispensable dynamic quality of law” [emphasis added] (2). Cases—which are, after all, simply collections of particular circumstances—can never be perfectly analogous with precedent. Each new case is literally unprecedented insofar as it features circumstances unforeseen by an abstracted law. “Thus it cannot be said that the legal process is the application of known rules to diverse facts” (Levi 3). Casuistic thinking is too kinetic to be described as the simple application of rules. Burke’s taxonomy of proverbs, for example, would not seek “to find categories that ‘place’ the proverbs once and for all. What I want are categories that suggest their active nature” [emphasis added] (Philosophy 296). The point would be to discern a proverb’s usefulness for “promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling” (Philosophy 296); thus, the lexicon rhetoricae of proverbs will always be moving. As people confront new situations, they will “‘need a word for it’ [...] to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary” (Philosophy 300). Most importantly, a taxonomy of rhetorical types—rather than genres, periods, styles, etc.—would “violate current pieties, break down current categories, and thereby ‘outrage good taste.’ But ‘good taste’ has become inert. The classifications I am proposing would be active” (Philosophy 303). In other words, new situations would not only expand the taxonomies but also shift and reshape them. Casuistry’s indispensable and dynamic quality involves not just the comparison of one set of diverse facts to another set, but also a mobile rather than rigid approach to precedent. It is a Protean rather than Procrustean art.

Perhaps fluid would be a better metaphor than mobile: morals, like words, are “thrown from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed” (Grammar xix). “Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source,” however, “and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid, and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction” (Grammar xix). If our distinctions remains congealed, “what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles” (Crusius). Like Levi, Burke seems again to recognize that it is “disturbing to find that the rules change from cases to case and are remade with each case” (Levi 2). In ethical matters, it might seem natural to prefer ideological rigidity. But this rigor risks turning our morals (at the further risk of yet another metaphor) into fists (Burke, Permanence 192). Burke’s dramatistic methodology offers an alchemic approach to ethics: “One could think of the Grammatical resources as principles, and of the various philosophies as casuistries which apply these principles to temporal situations” [emphasis in original] (Grammar xvi). In this formulation, Burke inverts the usual dichotomy that sees philosophy as permanence and rhetoric as change. Instead, change becomes permanent: the dramatistic principles of the grammar are always available for reconsidering that which had become fixed or naturalized. For Burke, a philosophy, on the other hand, “is to be considered a casuistry” and “even a cultural situation extending over centuries is a ‘case’” (Grammar xvii). Casuistry allows us to stir even the settled, centuries-old case. “A truly liquid attitude towards speech would be ready, all times, to employ ‘casuistry’ at points where [terminological] lacunae are felt. We believe that the result, in the end, could be a firmer kind of certainty, though it lacked the deceptive comforts of ideological rigidity” (Attitudes 231). Casuistry’s certainty is a liquid certainty, a viscous certainty. If casuistry is to (re)solve problems, it must do so under the condition that the army of metaphors in “solve” be mobilized. Once the metaphors are mobile, the crusted-over distinctions—the taxis we might marshal—will begin to dissolve, and the metaphors begin to mix, and you begin to sound like you’re babbling. But this vice of worried humor is actually casuistry’s virtue. The alchemy of casuistry is so fluid that to suggest casuistry as an “answer” to rhetoric’s ethical conundrum is paradoxical, for rhetoric faces a conundrum only insofar as we concede the terms of the virtuous question. In refusing to jump with these terms to their conclusions, rhetoric remains in the practical world, where vice competes with virtue, and where the only kind of ethics worth having is a vice-prospering ethics like casuistry, the kind of ethics produced by people “huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss” (Permanence 272). We can either circumscribe that Babel with our adamantine abstractions, or we can consider it on a case-by-case basis. Casuistry gives us one available means of doing the latter.

End Notes

*Correspondence to: Paul Lynch, Ph.D., Department of English, Saint Louis University, 3800 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108.

  1. See KB Journal, “The Gordian Not: Appendix 5”: <>.
  2. Following Leff’s model of “creative equivocation” offers the virtue invoking not only Cicero, casuistry’s first practitioner, but also the language of casuistry.
  3. As Albert Jonsen notes, the rhetorical challenge of reintroducing casuistry cuts both ways: “It seems rash to try to dispel the disrepute of casuistry by proposing that casuistry is rhetorical, for the modern reader is likely to think even less of rhetoric, which is daily derided in political campaigns, than of casuistry. However, the modern reader knows almost nothing of the rhetoric that dominated the intellectual life of western culture for many centuries” (297).
  4. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that ethics is a species of practical wisdom, or phronesis, rather than philosophic or theoretical wisdom: the notion of the good, he writes, “cannot be something universally present in all cases and single; for then it could not have been predicated in all the categories but one only” (1096a). Furthermore, “even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man” (1096b). Ethics, Aristotle argues, can be considered only in the particular circumstances in which a “good” manifests itself. While Aristotle is not a casuist in that he does not examine cases, his placement of ethics within situation is crucial to the development of the art.
  5. Though the commonplace notion that the Jesuits were “a propaganda order formed to regain for the Church ground lost since the Protestant Reformation” (Burke, Rhetoric 156) is historically and conspiratorially incorrect.
  6. For more on the question of casuistry and medical ethics, see the following: John D. Arras, “Getting Down to Cases: The Revival of Casuistry in Bioethics” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [16(1991): 29-51]; Baruch Brody, Life and Death in Decision Making [New York: Oxford UP, 1988] and Taking Issue: Pluralism and Casuistry in Bioethics [Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2003]; Albert R. Jonsen, “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics” in Theoretical Medicine [12 (1991): 295-307]; James M. Tallmon, “How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry: A Note on the Abuse of Father Wildes” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [19 (1993): 103-113]; Tom Tomlinson, “Casuistry in Medical Ethics: Rehabilitated, or Repeat Offender?” in Theoretical Medicine [15 (1994): 5-20]; Kevin Wm. Wildes, S.J., “Respondeo: Method and Content in Casuistry” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [19(1993): 115-119] and “The Priesthood of Bioethics and the Return of Casuistry” in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy [18.1 (1991): 33-49].
  7. Indeed, Toulmin hinted at casuistry in his Uses of Argument, which appeared thirty years before The Abuse of Casuistry: “Practice forces us to recognise (sic) that general ethical truths can aspire at best to hold good in the absence of effective counter-claims: conflicts of duty are an inescapable feature of the moral life. Where logic demand the form ‘All lying is reprehensible’ or ‘All promise-keeping is right,’ idiom therefore replies ‘Lying is reprehensible’ and ‘Promise-keeping is right.’ The logician’s “all” imports unfortunate expectations, which in practice are bound on occasion to be disappointed. Even the most general warrants in ethical arguments are yet liable in unusual situations to suffer exceptions, and so at strongest can authorise (sic) only presumptive conclusions” (109).
  8. Situation ethics does have many similarities with casuistry. Joseph Fletcher describes his position this way in Situations Ethics: The New Morality: “There are various names for this approach: situationism, contextualism, occasionalism, circumstantialism, even actualism. These labels indicate, of course, that the core of the ethic they describe is a healthy and primary awareness that ‘circumstances alter cases’—i.e., that in actual problems of conscience the situational variables are to be weighed as heavily as the normative or ‘general’ constants” (29). While Fletcher does see situation ethics as a kind of “neocasuitry,” he does not have much patience with casuistry itself. His main complaint is that casuistry accrues so many rules that it descends into legalism (124). For Fletcher, love is the only absolute, though his critics have pointed out that his notion of love is little slippery. In an almost Burkean analysis, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., complains that Fletcher’s invocation of “love” renders it a “fetish phrase” that “constitutes a kind of methodology by incantation which makes it terribly hard to know what Fletcher is actually saying” (141).
  9. A casuist might ask Crusius whether he means all war in all circumstances. Are there no situations in which war is just? Burke own phrase ad bellum purificandum would suggest he understood that war—tragically, comically—could never be controlled by elimination. Certainly this depth dimension can reveal the entelechies of the language that leads us to war, but it can also reveal the entelechies that lead us to various sorts of peace.


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