Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Argument in Holocaust Denial: The Differences between Historical Casuistry and Denial, Casuistry

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Argument in Holocaust Denial: The Differences between Historical Casuistry and Denial, Casuistry

Article excerpt

Casuistry and rhetoric both are terms long maligned for their unpredictability and ethical bendability. (1) The debate about rhetorical ethics is ancient and ongoing-as is the debate surrounding the appropriate use and application of casuistry. Since the sixteenth century, casuistry has been considered a flawed approach to moral decision-making, consigned by Pascal and Ramus to the arenas of argumentative nonsense, the worst excuse for ethical laxity and individual immorality. It is a "form of ethical problem solving with a dubious pedigree" (Miller 7). Recently, however, casuistry has been rehabilitated. Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin describe it sympathetically as

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 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 the circumstances of action. (257)

The key to legitimate casuistic reasoning is the human ability to relate and compare disparate objects and events appropriately, without splitting hairs. Discussing the range and limits of argument by example, John Arthos describes the Catholic Church's use of casuistry during the Middle Ages as exaggerations of situational, specific reasoning: "the vast and sprawling casebooks of canon law were exercises in the art of qualification" (332).

Casuistry is a consideration of the situatedness of situations, a nod to the contingencies of life, and it is rhetorical in that it has the power to shape and alter our perception of "fitting" responses and propriety: "Because of the complexity of reality and the variation of circumstances, immutable laws are not immediately helpful in determining the disposition of a case. Thus, a body of examples model prudent discrimination in conflicting and ambiguous decisions of conscience" (Arthos 332). These models of prudent discrimination demonstrate the ethical difficulties that casuists confront. When facing what Bitzer called an exigency, requiring judgment and decision, one has not only a logical responsibility to compare the present situation with previous precedents but also a moral responsibility to balance and evaluate each decision as it comes.

It is important for scholars of argument and rhetoric to study casuistry (whether used for good or ill) for two reasons. First, casuistry is a necessary and inescapable attribute of language (Burke, Rhetoric 72-73). Casuistic stretching. (2) is a function of language that enables social and collective meaning (Burke, Attitudes 229). Rhetoric, as the determination of persuasive means in any given situation, recognizes the space between certainty (syllogisms) and probability (enthymemes). Without this space, if only formal logic was acceptable, how would communication occur? How would history get told? Where would be the room for error and revision, correction and reapplication? Professors employ casuistry to relate old ideas to new ones. Politicians employ casuistry to form coalitions. Parents employ casuistry to get children in bed on time. Casuistic reasoning is intimately related to the process and business of language. If truths could not be stretched, and logic could not be expanded, language would be impoverished. Common ground between audiences and speakers would prove impossible because we cannot always stand in the same space, at the same time, with the same perspective.

The second reason to study casuistry is because casuistry is convincing. Pascal was outraged at what he believed to be the immoral (and random) rationalizations of the Church in part because they were so effective. Situational reasoning accommodates the contingencies, particularities, and uniqueness of exigencies. Bitzer's discussion of the rhetorical situation reveals the casuistry required of effective rhetors (5-6). …

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