They just don’t subtitle books the way they used to. Image from AbeBooks https://bit.ly/3hSU08S

Casuistry & Conscience

A couple of weeks ago I found myself down the rabbit hole of 17th-century English casuistry and understandings of conscience. Clearly, I like to party.

This all began about a year ago when I read Martin Thorntons, English Spirituality. Near the end of the book, he refers to Jeremy Taylor’s Ductor Dubitantium, and, while I can’t say why this particular work stuck in my mind this whole time, I became increasingly curious about it and decided to take a glance at it via Google Books.

I didn’t get very far, but what I did read in the first chapter or so piqued my interest. I just can’t say no to fine distinctions and definitions! I hope to return to it someday in the future, but a couple of weeks ago I followed the white rabbit down the lane of other 17th-century English writers who focused on conscience and casuistry. Apparently, it was a thing! William Perkins, George Sandersen, William Ames (yes, he was in the Netherlands, but he was English), and my friend Jeremy Taylor.

With the help of P. H. Sedgwick, I got a brief overview not only of Jeremy Taylor’s unique contribution, but also of casuistry and conscience in the moral landscape of the 16th and 17th-century, and why these things died out in the 18th.

Casuistry

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Casuistry is a way of resolving moral dilemmas by attending to the particulars of each situation. It is often associated with Jesuit tricks, but it was a popular practice during this period beyond the Society of Jesus (even Malcolm Gladwell has gotten in on the fun). I’m not sure when I first read about casuistry. I remember reading about it in Resurrection and Moral Order and, for whatever reason, I had the impression that casuistry was a bad thing (though I don’t blame O’Donovan for that).

Taylor also thought that casuistry was bad, at least the way it was used by Roman Catholics. From the preface to Ductor Dubitantium, Taylor frames his book as a reformation of Roman Catholic casuistry that he sees as suffering from legality and laxity. The value of casuistry in helping an individual resolve ethical dilemmas is turned into a game of trying to find ethical loopholes. Sedgwick points out that Taylor is specifically addressing the casuistical theory of probabilism in which mere probability is sufficient to legitimate an action, even if the alternative is more probable. In some cases, if one is able to find one single authority in the Church who approves of a certain kind of action, then it is not a sin. But this, Taylor thinks, is to miss the point of casuistry.

And truly it were much to be wished that men would do so now; endeavouring to teach the ways of godliness in sincerity, to shew to men the right paths of salvation; to describe the right and plain measures of simplicity, christian charity, chastity, temperance and justice; to unwind the entanglements of art, and to strip moral theology of all its visors (xiv) .

The word simplicity seemed strange to me for a book of casuistry, but I think it’s right. I’ve talked with people who appeal to simplicity to avoid the hard work of critical reflection, no less in ethics than in other disciplines, but here it is not intellectual simplicity but the simplicity of a virtuous life. The role of the pastor or the counselor (or of anyone offering guidance) is to bring clarity that leads to action. To some, this may seem obvious, but for me, it is what I struggle with the most. I would have been the type of person that Taylor criticized: full of fine distinctions but empty on action.

Instead of probabilism, Taylor followed probiliorism in which one should take the more probable course of action. A few letters make quite a difference! But this isn’t the only principle Taylor follows. In the preface, he lays out the principles by which he will be guided as he examines cases:

α) In hard and intricate questions I take that which is easy and intelligible, and concerning which it will be easy to judge whether it be right or wrong.

β) In odious things, and matters of burden and envy, I take that part which is least, unless there be evident reason to the contrary.

γ) In favours I always choose the largest sense, when anyone is bettered by that sense, and no man is the worse.

δ) In things and questions relating to men I give those answers that take away scruples, and bring peace and a quiet mind.

ε) In things relating to God I always choose to speak that thing which to Him is most honourable.

ζ) In matters of duty I always choose that which is most holy.

η) In doubts I choose what is safest.

θ) In probabilities I prefer that which is the more reasonable, never allowing to anyone a leave of choosing that which is confessedly the less reasonable in the whole conjunction of circumstances and relative considerations.

While I won’t say we need a standardized casuistical method, I do think these principles are helpful guides. Perhaps it is a kind of moral exercise such that when dilemmas arise — and they will arise — we have had enough practice building our moral muscles so that we can act without becoming paralyzed or retreating to platitudes.

Conscience

I did not spend as much time considering the debates on the nature of conscience. Is conscience a faculty, habit, or act? Taylor — following Aquinas and many others before him— considered it a habit (though he does differ with Aquinas in rejecting the idea of “infused habit”). In any case, there is a particular feature of conscience that involves a judgment of the intellect concerning the moral principles that we have by nature. This intuitive apprehension of God’s moral law the scholastics called synderesis.

Found on Google Images

This — it seems to me — is one of the differences between us and them in understanding conscience. Sedgwick notes that with the decline of casuistry, moral theory shifted away from a judgment of the intellect to one of feeling or sentiment (350). Or, to put it more broadly, it represents a move away from prioritizing the intellect to prioritizing the will. While admitting the complexity of contemporary moral theory, it seems to me that at a popular level, discussions of conscience tend to reduce to the black box of feelings or sentiment. When discussions or arguments are at an impasse, appeals to conscience allow us to maintain our position without the need for justification.

On the other extreme, data science and statistics (e.g., Bayesian decision theory) lead some to evacuate the need for conscience at all. Follow the numbers; numbers don’t lie! While I admit how helpful such methods can be, their value as infallible guides is an illusion. We are naturally bad at statistics — as Tversky and Kahneman have argued— and we can’t all become statisticians. Should we then evacuate the responsibility for our own conscience to the class of mathematical specialists? This would be just as problematic as retreating to feelings. In fact, this is what Taylor thought was happening with casuistry in Roman Catholicism: hyper-specialized experts reducing moral dilemmas to cases without (he thinks) a concern for the affective aspect of our moral life.

Instead, Taylor thinks what is needed is a pastoral guide to help individuals navigate the dilemmas of conscience in a way that unites both the intellectual and the affective. Ductor Dubitantium was meant to help train pastors to become such guides. I do hope I get a chance to work through it. For now, I will be content to let these ideas ruminate. In upcoming posts, I want to work through some current issues in a casuistical manner. This will be an experiment for me; I’m not adopting a particular method (though Taylor is my inspiration), but I will try to be as nuanced and pastoral as I can uniting both the intellect and the affections.

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Ryan Clevenger

Ryan Clevenger

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Former aspiring academic now living in the real world.