Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy


Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Case Theory, Practice, Casuistry

Theoretical and Practical Arguments

REAL SITUATIONS are more COMPLEX than typical examples reveal. Certainly an ABSOLUTIST approach is TOO RIGID and a complete RELATIVIST TOO OPEN.

Furthermore, real world problems often show the LIMITS of MERELY APPLYING a 'utilitarian calculus' or a 'set of rules.'

There are also cases in which people of GOOD CONSCIENCE even DISAGREE about which prima facie duties are applicable or which have an overriding force.

This doesn't mean that discussions about moral theory are fruitless, but it does imply that the movement from 'theory' to 'practice' is not simply a matter of 'application.' [Jonsen and Toulmin provide the background for this section.]

Theoretical Arguments

THEORETICAL ARGUMENTS are NOT DEPENDENT on the CIRCUMSTANCES of their presentation. Their VALIDITY is NOT AFFECTED by the PRACTICAL CONTEXT of their use:

For example: (1) All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal and (2) Lying is wrong, Jones lied, therefore Jones did something wrong.

Practical Arguments

PRACTICAL ARGUMENTS draw on the outcomes of PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE, carrying over PROCEDURES USED TO RESOLVE EARLIER PROBLEMS and REAPPLYING THEM in NEW PROBLEMATIC SITUATIONS.

Casuistry and a Case-Based Approach to Ethics

CASUISTRY is a form of PRACTICAL ARGUMENT that explores the RELATIONSHIP between assumed MORAL PARADIGMS (prima facie duties) and PROBLEMATIC INSTANCES (difficult cases).

A Brief History of Casuistry

Cicero and the Nature of Classical Rhetoric

De Officiis

    In "On Duty" the Roman Marcus Cicero (106 - 43 BC) wrote the first 'case book' on situations where 'conflicts of duty' appear to arise.

    We need to consider "what is most needful in each individual case," he wrote, and that "different circumstances should be carefully scrutinized in every instance" (AC p. 79)

De Inventione

    In "On Invention" Cicero states that the major activity of rhetoric is "...the discovery of true or apparently true arguments that will render one's case plausible" (AC p. 85).

    The elements of classical rhetoric included:

      Concentration on the PARTICULAR SITUATION about which there was an UNRESOLVED CONTROVERSY;

      Discussion of the PRIMA FACIE DUTIES that were relevant to the situation;

      Presentation of ARGUMENTS that were appropriate to either side; and

      A move toward RESOLUTION in arriving at a verdict or judgment.

Christian Confessors

    The Penitentials

    From around the 6th Century AD individual confession and penance became customary in the Church. And books written to guide the clergy and the faithful became the first example of Medieval Casuistry.

    Excerpts from a 'Penitential' reveal the concern with 'the circumstances of the case':

      "Not all persons are to be weighed in one and the same balance, although they be associated in one fault, but there shall be discrimination for each of these, rich and poor; freeman or slave; small child...or old man; stupid or intelligent; layman...or monk;...married or unmarried; pilgrim, virgin ... or nun; the weak, sick or well.

      "The priest shall [also] make a distinction for the character of the sins or of the men -- under compulsion or voluntary; the time and place, and so on" (AC p. 97)

Casus Conscientiae

    The medieval term for 'casuistry' is translated from casus conscientitae or 'cases of conscience.' It involved the study and discussion of difficult cases, cases that would provoke a perplexed conscience. Pope Gregory I (540-604) noted that the text in the Book of Job, "the sinews of Behemoth's testicles are tightly entwined (perplexi)...," indicated that the temptations of the Devil are such as to cause 'perplexity' to good people (AC p. 95).

    These kinds of cases required both a practical and theological understanding of terms such as 'conscience,' 'prudence,' and 'circumstance.'

The Jesuits

    The Society of Jesus combined classical rhetoric with Christian case studies and raised casuistry to new heights during the period from 1556 - 1656.

    In this period of rapid social, political and economic change, new 'cases of conscience' were constantly being posed by new circumstances. For example, conflicting loyalties caused by the Reformation.

    The Jesuits were the first 'worldly' order -- they counseled the nobility and the emerging mercantile class on public matters such as treaties and social order and used casuistical methods throughout.

Pascal's Critique

    The "Provincial Letters" (1656) by Blaise Pascal attacked the LAXITY caused by an excessive casuistry that seeks 'probable' opinions on every side of a difficult case. The method of casuistry came to be seen as a source of excuse-making.

    Furthermore, the period of the Enlightenment began moving the 'foundations' of morals and society away from religious 'orders.'

    Specific attacks against the Jesuits and new philosophical movements led to a decline of casuistry as a method for doing moral philosophy. [By the end of the 19th Century, for example, the Cambridge "Knightbridge Chair of Casuistic Divinity" evolved into the "Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy."]


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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)

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