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What’s ethical about popular casuistry?

“How do religious humanitarians make sense of what they do?” Cecelia Lynch asked in her recent lecture at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The answer Lynch proposed was, at least in form, what she has called “popular casuistry.” In her lecture, Lynch conceptualized popular casuistry as “how religious actors enact their ethics in practice, how they practice ethics in the exigencies of their times.”

Casuistry, of course, has more than one association, as Lynch rightly noted. Negatively, it calls up the sophistry of clever moral argumentation that may be intended to justify even nefarious actions. But, Lynch didn’t use it in this sense. Rather, she had in mind, more positively, the medieval Catholic moral practice of discerning the fitting principle to apply to a concrete case through appeal to past precedent by way of the exercise of prudential judgment.

Bridging these meanings, negative and positive, Lynch cited Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Jonsen and Toulmin argued that, in spite of casuistry’s bad name, the problem was not casuistry per se but rather its abuse that should draw our critique. As such, what we need is not a cold-turkey rejection of the practice, but rather, better casuistry.

Lynch’s study adds to Jonsen and Toulmin’s intervention by not only retrieving the concept of casuistry, but using it to fill out the neglect of ethical reasoning within International Relations. Critiquing her primary field, Lynch argued in agreement with Ager and Ager (2015) that scholars need to engage more fully with religion and its import for humanitarian practice. Constructively, Lynch has modeled a way to execute fuller engagement through a neo-Weberian approach that views: 1) ethics as constitutive of (and constituted by) political and economic dynamics; 2) religions as discursive traditions that are living and active; and 3) the intervener and outsider as a research subject worthy of critical attention.

Lynch’s study of the ethics of religious humanitarianisms not only retrieves the notion of casuistry, but develops it by using it as a lens to understand the everyday ethics of humanitarian actors. Thus the term “popular casuistry.” Lynch attends to the specific, contextual ethics that animate the practices of religious actors at the multiple sites of international humanitarianism (Cameroon, Kenya, Geneva, and the United Kingdom, to name a few locales). Through in depth interviews that start with the rough ground of religious humanitarians’ moral terrain, Lynch inductively identified sites of moral deliberation. Social conflicts over medicine and healing, practices for memorialization of the dead, and arbitration of land disputes all provided the contexts of moral work.

Lynch found that these moral issues, however, were transacted in a social imaginary that included four dominant discourses: 1) the history and spread of Islam and Christianity in Africa; 2) the legacies of colonialism and post-colonialism; 3) the rise of neoliberalism; and 4) the war on terrorism. If the issues named above furnish the sites of moral reasoning, these discourses provide the discursive field in which that moral reasoning took place. Lynch offered several rich examples of interviewees who engaged in popular casuistry on this terrain.

There is much that I appreciate about this approach. My questions, however, push Lynch toward disclosing more of what she means by the provocative term popular casuistry and specifically what normative work this description allows.

Casuistry has classically included 1) a case; 2) principles or precedents; 3) procedures of applying principle to case and 4) a judgment. Each of these heuristically separable (but iteratively practiced) moments in a casuistic analysis provides an opportunity for clarification.

First, regarding the case: I want to hear more about the kinds of moral dilemmas that religious humanitarians face. While medicine and land were featured in her lecture, I also wonder about other issues: possibly those related to gender and sexuality, violence, governance, and economics. Of course, what appears as morally significant is always already framed. But, what appears as morally significant is, well, morally significant. Did political or sexual violence appear as morally significant issues? Why or why not?

Second, regarding principle: it was not clear to me what precedents Lynch’s subjects identify as morally relevant or fitting. What are these precedents? And, are these articulated as principles, paradigmatic stories, practices, sacred texts, or something else? Lynch was right, in my view, to seek to move beyond Weber’s too static conception of principles, as well as beyond MacIntyre’s too hermetic conceptualization of traditions. While we agree on both these moves, it is not yet apparent to me that the four dominant discourses that Lynch identified provide the normative heft that Lynch needs for her analysis.

Third, regarding application: Lynch performed a double objectification of her analytical gaze, first naming herself as an outsider and second using that outsider status to interrogate the status of the humanitarian intervener. This work sets her up to take another step and lay bare the processes of practical reason (phronesis) that both her research subjects and herself engage in. How do they/she identify issues as “moral”? How do they/she identify principles as fitting? How do they/she apply those principles to the discursive contexts in which they/she operates? Answering each of these questions might illuminate more fully the ethics at work in popular casuistry.

Fourth, regarding judgment: the point of casuistry (at least according to Jonsen and Toulmin) is to come to prudential conclusions about specific cases that then can in turn generalize (however cautiously) into norms that might be used across cases through a similar process of specification. I suspect that Lynch’s Neo-Weberianism presupposes an objective distance that is principally descriptive in its aim. By descriptive, I mean that it gives an account of moral deliberation but does not presuppose the cogency (coherence and obligatory force) of the moral norms that come into play. But, I want to hear more from Lynch about the judgments of her research subjects, as well as her own judgments. This would require, of course, for Lynch to disclose her own normative orientation. But, by noting some of the limitations of a purely Weberian approach as well as objectifying her own role as an outsider in the contexts in which she researches, I think her methodology invites just this kind of move.

Lynch’s proposal strikes me as potentially quite fruitful as a mode of ethical and political analysis. It closely aligns with my own research interest to explicate the ethics implicit in the practices of peacebuilders. To harvest these fruits, however, I want to encourage Lynch to further clarity about the conceptual work that casuistry does in her research.


Kyle Lambelet is a PhD candidate at the University Notre Dame in Ethics and Peace Studies and a Research Associate with  Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with a particular focus on the ethics of nonviolence.

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