Casuistry as bioethical method: an empirical perspective

Soc Sci Med. 2001 Jul;53(1):71-81. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(00)00314-2.


This paper examines the role that casuistry, a model of bioethical reasoning revived by Jonsen and Toulmin, plays in ordinary moral reasoning. I address the question: 'What is the evidence for contemporary casuistry's claim that everyday moral reasoning is casuistic in nature?' The paper begins with a description of the casuistic method, and then reviews the empirical arguments Jonsen and Toulmin offer to show that every-day moral decision-making is casuistic. Finally, I present the results of qualitative research conducted with 15 general practitioners (GPs) in South Australia, focusing on the ways in which these GP participants used stories and anecdotes in their own moral reasoning. This research found that the GPs interviewed did use a form of casuistry when talking about ethical dilemmas. However, the GPs' homespun casuistry often lacked one central element of casuistic reasoning--clear paradigm cases on which to base comparisons. I conclude that casuistic reasoning does appear to play a role in every-day moral decision-making, but that it is a more subdued role than perhaps casuists would like.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bioethics*
  • Decision Making
  • Empiricism*
  • Ethics*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals
  • Physicians, Family