The New Casuistry vs. Narrative Ethics: A Postmodern Analysis

Article excerpt

The most interesting developments occurring in contemporary ethical theory can be found in the realm of post-Vatican II Catholic moral theology. The current debate in this arena between those whom I shall call the "new casuists" and "narrative ethicists" has a significance that goes far beyond the parochial confines of Catholic circles. And this should come as no surprise, since the very issues which have been most influential in this debate were first raised and developed by non-Catholic thinkers. However, it is currently within the Roman church where this debate has sparked the most heated controversy and received its most lucid articulation.

I first wish to examine in this essay some of the basic Aristotelian positions underlying both the New Casuistry and Narrative Ethics in an effort to see more clearly both the relevant similarities and differences between these ethical approaches. I shall finally adopt the postmodern framework of Derridean deconstruction as a means to understanding more adequately the dynamics of their fascinating relationship. Hopefully, both Catholic moral theology and ethical theory in general will be equally illuminated in the process.

Pre-Vatican II Moral Theology

The history of all Western ethical thought begins with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.(l) For Aristotle, the aim of the moral life is the attainment of the moral virtues which are gained in the habitual exercise of them (II. 1). He defines virtue as "a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., a mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine" (II.6). Aristotle gives us a crucial example of practical wisdom in action in his consideration of the central virtue of justice (V.10).

Here he argues that the law (e.g., an ethical principle) is necessarily defective because of its abstract universality, i.e., it cannot possibly anticipate every possible case which might arise in concrete human affairs. Therefore, the "over-simplicity" of the law needs to be compensated for by one with practical wisdom: "to say what the legislator himself would have said had he been present, and would have put into his law if he had known." This is what is known as the attainment of "equity (epicheia)," a correction of strict legal justice.

Aristotle's view of such exceptional cases, however, differs radically from that of Plato. John Mahoney, S.J., makes the following comparison:

For Plato, the exception is a deviation and a deficiency, due to the imperfect way in which worldly reality embodies and represents the ideal, whereas for Aristotle the exception, far from weakening the law, actually improves and corrects it.(2)

Mahoney goes on to point out that this Aristotelian view of law and epicheia was introduced into Catholic philosophy and theology with the translation into Latin of the Nicomachean Ethics in 1245.(3) It thus became a pivotal component in the ethical thinking of Thomas Aquinas who proceeded to systematize the whole medieval case study method of doing ethics.

Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin have written a fascinating history of the rise and fall of casuist moral reasoning in the hopes of contributing to its rehabilitation and advancement in today's intellectual environment.(4) They define the casuist method in the following manner:

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 circumstances of action.(5)

They trace the development of this "analogical" method of reasoning from Aristotle's time, through its use by canonists and confessors in the Middle Ages, up to the zenith of its popular use by the early Jesuits. …