Getting down to cases: the revival of casuistry in bioethics

J Med Philos. 1991 Feb;16(1):29-51. doi: 10.1093/jmp/16.1.29.


This article examines the emergence of casuistical case analysis as a methodological alternative to more theory-driven approaches in bioethics research and education. Focusing on The Abuse of Casuistry by A. Jonsen and S. Toulmin, the article articulates the most characteristic features of this modern-day casuistry (e.g., the priority allotted to case interpretation and analogical reasoning over abstract theory, the resemblance of casuistry to common law traditions, the 'open texture' of its principles, etc.) and discusses some problems with casuistry as an 'anti-theoretical' method. It is argued that casuistry so defined is 'theory modest' rather than 'theory free' and that ethical theory can still play a significant role in casuistical analysis; that casuistical analyses will encounter conflicting 'deep' interpretations of our social practices and institutions, and are therefore unlikely sources of increased social consensus on controversial bioethical questions; that its conventionalism raises questions about casuistry's ability to criticize norms embedded in the societal consensus; and that casuistry's emphasis upon analogical reasoning may tend to reinforce the individualistic nature of much bioethical writing. It is concluded that, not-withstanding these problems, casuistry represents a promising alternative to the regnant model of 'applied ethics' (i.e., to the ritualistic invocation of the so-called 'principles of bioethics'). The pedagogical implications of casuistry are addressed throughout the paper and include the following recommendations: (1) use real cases, (2) make them long, richly detailed and comprehensive, (3) present complex sequences of cases, (4) stress the problem of 'moral diagnosis', and (5) be ever mindful of the limits of casuistical analysis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bioethical Issues
  • Bioethics*
  • Casuistry*
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Ethical Theory
  • Morals