Thursday, 20 February 2014

Casuist - Case Off

A casuist thinking about an ethical dilemma
Photo by Striatic


Noun. Early 17th century.
[French casuiste from Spanish casuista from modern Latin, from Latin casus CASE noun: see -IST.]

A person, especially a theologian, who resolves cases of conscience, duty, etc;
a sophist, a quibbler.

casuistic, casuistical adjectives of or pertaining to casuists or casuistry M17

casuistically adverb L17

casuistry noun the reasoning of a casuist;
the resolution of cases of conscience by the application of general rules to particular instances, frequently disclosing a conflict of duties;
sophistry. E18

Casuistry is a difficult topic to pin down, with various dictionaries giving vague, conflicting and perplexing definitions. However, historically, a casuist is a person that examines matters of conscience on a case-by-case basis rather than dogmatically adhering to an absolute moral truth. Therefore, if one accepts the axiom that lying is morally wrong, one might question if it's always, absolutely, without exception morally wrong. A casuistic approach to this question would be to examine each case individually - as a general principle, lying is morally wrong; under oath, in a court of law, lying is morally wrong; lying to a Gestapo agent, however, who is searching your house for the Jewish family hiding in the attic, might be morally acceptable considering that if you tell the truth it will almost definitely lead to their arrest and execution. Conversely, a moral absolutist who maintains the position that lying is wrong will do just that - he will maintain that position regardless of the details of the case.

All rather clear, right? Well it would be, except that casuistry has gained and lost favour through the centuries, so that its meaning has similarly altered. Whenever it's used now, it is almost invariably pejorative, describing clever, tricky, high-sounding but ultimately specious arguments (my favourite definition, and by far the simplest, was by Cambridge Online Dictionaries, that defined casuistry as 'the use of clever arguments to trick people'). This fall from favour came in part from criticism that casuistry leads to overly flexible morality - "Sure, lying is wrong, but if I can think of a reason why it doesn't apply in my case, I can excuse it." No doubt the inventiveness, imagination and sheer gall of some casuists (defending lawyers and politicians spring to mind) have edged the meaning of casuistry away from purely a method of approaching ethical issues to one that describes a tricky, clever-sounding, excuse-laden tongue.

So ... lying ... is it always wrong?

Do you approach that question casuistically or absolutely?

Do feel free to state your case in the comment box below.


  1. I make no apologies for not reading today's post ed, comfortable in the knowledge that to read it would have left me knowing that I had no excuse for not reading it, ergo, I didn't.


  2. Casuistically, Ed!

    Shouldn’t but... when I think that omitting, being vague about something - in order to avoid the dreadful LIE! - is also a lie in itself, I have to be honest - and in the presence of cases such as your Gestapo mention - I approach it casuistically.

    Casuist(ic) is a word I'd only - before this post of yours - read or heard in those Law Series you watch on TV... and they wear it so well. So I guess even words - written in stone - gain and loose f(l)avour through the centuries. Food for thought! I Like your place here... must come soon. [as soon as I get over the fear that my typos and mistakes will drive you crazy LOL]

    Teresa (and I believe that's a weird farewell in a comment because I'm logged as Teresa (right?) but it seems rude not to sign my name after stating what I think... I don't know you well enough for Love, Yours etc etc etc and Cheers certainly doesn't apply after I admitted myself as a liar... though I'll call myself a casuistic from now on ;))

    1. Welcome to Lexicolatry, Teresa - glad you like it here. Feel free to comment any time.

      Yours frumentaceously,


  3. A volunteer tried to sign me up for something the other day at the exit of the metro but I pretended not to understand English. I had to get to work at some point! Is that casuistic enough?

    1. Evi! I'm shocked and disillusioned at your duplicity!

    2. Τι ειπατε; Δεν καταλαβα!

  4. Upon reading this article I couldnt help but think to myself......."but I dont have a Jewish family living in my attic yet"

    1. Yet? Well at least now you have time to casuistically prepare for this moral dilemma of how you will answer said Gestapo agent when you do.

    2. Okay okay, It's been a rather tiresome and exasperating weekend but iv been successful in my attempts to seduce said family into my home, now I am on the search for this agent in order to play out my dark fantasy with a copious amount of gadding about.