IAJBS 23rd Annual World Forum University of Namur, Namur, Belgium

Experience level: 
Jeffery Smith
Jeffery Smith, Dung Tran

Jesuit-Informed Casuistry and Its Significance for Business Ethics

Various critics of contemporary ethical theory have emphasized the extent to which moral reasoning is inherently particular and case-based. These individuals, including self-described “moral particularists,” applied ethicists and contemporary Aristotelians, argue that a focus on rules and abstract principles does little to enhance the ability of individuals to identify and appropriately respond to moral problems. This paper joins this discussion by examining the Jesuit-informed notion of casuistry, which, we claim, shares much in common with many of the insights offered by these critics (cf. Toulmin, 1981; Calkins, 2014; O’Malley, 1993; Kennan, 1996; Bretzke, 2004; Keenan & Shannon, 1995: Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988). Recent work in casuistry, despite its checkered history and sometimes negative connotations, emphasizes that moral decisions are not deduced from principles but, rather, formed from a subtle process of examining past decisions in light of new situations. Judgments in new situations are drawn by analogy through comparison to “settled” cases and, most importantly, attention to the irreducibly unique facts of each decision-making context. We draw two related conclusions from our examination of casuistry that are pertinent to the field of business ethics. First, we argue that the theoretical lessons of recent casuistry have largely escaped the academic study of business ethics because management disciplines emphasize the need for rule-based methods of decision making in highly bureaucratic environments. Unfortunately, adherence to rules tends to obscure thoughtful solutions to moral problems even when efficiency and maintenance of authority are important (Petersen, 2002). To illustrate this problem, we highlight an ongoing debate as to whether standards for the accounting profession ought to be rules- or principles-based (Herron and Gilbertson, 2004). We argue that while casuistry does not require us to abandon appeal to principles, it nonetheless emphasizes the need for a rich and nuanced practical understanding of how principles direct action in particular circumstances. Opting for a rule-based system encourages a “gaming” attitude among accountants in which moral questions are adequately addressed as long as they are compliant with the stated meaning of the rules. This is unsatisfactory because such rules are necessarily incomplete and contestable no matter how complex the system develops. Parallels to other business problems are thereafter drawn. Second, we maintain that casuistic forms of moral reasoning are conducive to both practical wisdom and moral imagination (Werhane, 1999). These capacities are crucial not only to business practitioners, engaged in decision making with ethical significance, but also to business students who are learning how to balance instrumental considerations, i.e., strategic or economic considerations, with ethical ones. Ethical judgment in business, we argue, is essentially a process of “instituting” general ethical concerns (or values) in novel cases (O’Neill, 1997). This means that deciding how to respond to a situation in an ethically responsible fashion requires both: (a) an appreciation of those general values; and (b) an ability to creatively construct possible responses that show respect to those values, even when there are conflicts or tradeoffs between them. Casuistry provides us with a highly particularized method to facilitate this process. We conclude by contrasting our use of casuistry with the work of Calkins (2001), Ciulla (1994) and Hasnas (2013).