What is casuistry and how can it make you more rational about politics?
What actually happened last week?
I’m not asking about whether Trump is implicated in the sedition and insurrection at the Capitol. That seems fairly clear. Nor am I doubting the severity of the events. It seems that a difference of a couple of minutes and a right turn instead of a left, and we might have seen the mob reach the Senators. Nasty stuff.
But this is complicated — for example, although events were incited by Trump, there were plans from before his speech. For something that will take a lot of processing and unpicking, there were lots of conclusions flying around very quickly. Threads like this — just images, no comment — are sadly rare.
The question, what actually happened?, is being posed here in a bigger, more cultural sense. In Tyler Cowen’s words, what the hell is going on?
Politics has become entrenched.
And our conclusions are way more predictable than the events they are supposed to be in reaction to.
When the mob broke into the Capitol a lot of people screamed ‘coup!’ — and a lot of them are still screaming it. (The more sophisticated were saying autogolpe.) That’s because there was a narrative about Trump, right from the start, that he was a tyrant, a fascist, an autocrat. Stephen Greenblatt even wrote a book about Shakespeare’s Tyrants that was, well, just a way of talking about Trump. And when the mob descended on the Capitol it looked like we had reached Act V of of the Tragedy of Donald, Autocrat of America.
However, there’s a key condition that needs to be met for something to be a coup — the use of state force. As Naunihal Singh said in what must the most overlooked commentary from the whole episode: ‘(a) he is operating as the head of a movement rather than the head of state and (b) these gambits are still very weak and easy to defeat.’
You can quibble with the ‘easy to defeat part’, but it is notable just how reliant on poor policing the mob was. Try reading this statement from the police without gasping. There are lots of conflicting, challenging details that mean we should be wary of being on one side of the argument or another. Calling it a coup is all well and good — but this was hardly an ordinary coup (if such a thing exists).
The way people pick a story and run with it is similar to the way they pick a moral principle and stick with it. In one way of thinking, morals are eternal principles. This is a Platonic way of thinking, which treats ethics as something to be discovered, like the laws of science. The high priest of this mode of thinking is Kant, and his unbreakable moral rules.
That sort of thinking is obvious everywhere in politics. We praise conviction politicians. We boo and hiss when people make a U turn. We see it as darkly and deeply significant when it is discovered that politicians thought differently about important topics fifteen years ago. We praise moral consistency. And we love to hate a pragmatist. We are reluctant to admit when people we support make bad decisions and when people we oppose make good ones.
But that all makes the same mistake that the narrative thinking makes: it assumes everything that happens can be fitted neatly into a principle or a story. What if the world is more complicated than that?
It’s time for casuistry
It was obvious fairly quickly that — although some horrific and tragic things happened at the Capitol, like the under-mourned deaths of five people — what was happening was not entirely, or exclusively, serious. We were faced with footage of mobs, gun shots, and violence at the same time as we saw people looting lecterns, posing for selfies, and laughing for their fifteen minutes of fame.
There wasn’t one consistent story to be told. A lot of what happened was much more Mickey Mouse than Mickey the Mobster.
Our narrative principles, and often our moral principles, are not good tools for us to use to think about events like this. To supporters it was a blow for justice, to opponents it was a coup. But to many other confused, inquiring minds, it looked like a man in the chamber wearing horns posing for Instagram while a woman got shot in the hall.
To make sense of this — in the bigger, more cultural sense — we need to rediscover the art of casuistry. Casuistry reasons about specifics (cases), rather than principles. It is a way of thinking about moral problems when ‘general norms do not simply apply’. Note the word order. This is for cases when our principles do not simply apply. We have to think like casuists when things get complicated, like when an actor leads a middle aged mob into a social media frenzy and at the same time, five people are killed.
Examples of casuistry
The essential method of casuistry is to ‘descend into the particulars’ and assess moral situations case by case. It can be well illustrated with two examples about abortion, perhaps the moral and political issue that suffers the most from being treated like a Kantian binary, rather than a complex issue without a single answer.
During the 1984 US Presidential campaign, Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats, running with Walter Mondale, was asked her position on abortion. She said that she opposed abortion, but supported the rights of women to make their own choices. The institutional religious response was much as you would expect it to be. Her answer was described as ‘not rational’ by a bishop.
However, there was a Catholic group who ran an advert in the New York Times defending Ferraro, saying that ‘a diversity of opinion’ existed about abortion within the church, and their position (and hers) rested on ‘adherence of the principles of moral theology such as probabilism.’ This debate was between two groups: one that wanted to stick to consistent principles, and one that wanted to judge each case on its merits. That second position — ‘probabilism’ — is casuistry.
The other example comes from Mary Warnock, the philosopher who was once Headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls. She used casuistry in the advice she gave to her pupils who got pregnant.
In my days as a headmistress I more than once encouraged a sixteen- or seventeen-year old to have an abortion as quickly as possible, and come back to get on with her A-levels. I did not regret these decisions, nor did the girls in question, who had no desire whatever to have the child of the person who had, if not raped, then at least casually seduced them. In another different kind of case a girl of sixteen came to see me with a beaming smile to tell me that, by accident, she was pregnant, and wasn’t it wonderful? Now she could leave school. (And she came back to visit the school later, still delighted, with the baby in a pram, and its equally delighted grandmother at her side.) Circumstances differ.
Like the Catholic casuists who defended Geraldine Ferraro, Mary Warnock was assessing each case on its merits, rather than enforcing a single, unalterable principle. It is notable that Warnock’s examples — of the more and less academically minded girls — tally with sociological research cited by Jonsen and Toulmin in The Abuse of Casuistry showing that pro-life and pro-choice views among women tend to differ most by education and income level. This is not the sole criteria, but it shows us how seemingly high-minded principles of ethics can also be guided by factors less within our control. And factors that are much more pragmatic, and likely to vary case by case.
The five-step casuistic method
Jonsen and Toulmin, and Mary Warnock, are arguing against the assumption that ‘an ethical position always consists in a code of general rules.’ Once we stop assuming that we have to create inviolable principles, we are free to see that ‘sympathy… is the source of ethics.’
Imagine what this sort of thinking — where we could be empirical about what was happening, rather than dogmatic — could do for us when we want to understand politics.
Casuists attempt to classify the event in question, drawing on paradigms and taxonomies, frequently involving analogical reasoning
Casuists identify which presumptions are relevant to the event
Casuists comment on the case’s circumstances and how these might affect our overall judgment of the event in question.
Casuists often reflect on the opinions of prior authorities as these might bear upon our moral assessment of the case.
Casuists then render a verdict after bringing together the materials from the first four components.
The first stage of casuistic thinking is taxonomy: working out what you are looking at and categorising it. When thinking about the Capitol, the more you know, the weirder it gets.
By stepping back from the immediate narrative diagnosis of ‘coup!’ we are free to sift all the evidence and account for it. And the more weird the evidence is, the less the situation looks like something we are already familiar with. It’s clear how to categorise this event. Casuists will think about what other situations are relevant without reflexively aligning with one principle (or narrative) or another.
The second stage is to think about which ‘presumptions’, or unique features of the case, are relevant. But we are faced with actors in horns and former senior military officers carrying zip-tie handcuffs. It’s unlikely we can compare this to other coups successfully.
Bruno Maçães did a wonderful job of this in his article about the events on Capitol Hill, where he explained that the fantasy politics everyone engaged in that day are in fact just as worrisome as would have been a coup.
Does this mean that the Capitol extravaganza was trivial or unimportant? Not at all. In some strange way it was more significant than a real coup. A coup would at least make sense, while the almost complete replacement of serious politics by subterranean fantasy and roleplaying induces a sense of vertigo. Our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. Nothing seems real, and doubts persist about what to think or say in the face of this new situation. In the Senate debate that preceded the chaos, Ted Cruz was heard shouting to his colleagues: “Be bold. Astonish the viewers.” Prophetic words. We were astonished.
By comparing this ‘mob’ with groups of people engaging in forms of social media fantasy, Maçães starts to reclassify the event and help us see it in a new light. He says he would call it a coup, but compares it to roleplaying, rather than ‘the framework of the American political tradition.’
The third stage is to assess the ways in which the case is different to anything else we know — the bobble hat, the printed hoodies with ‘Civil War’ on, the cocktails in a hotel lobby afterwards. We can then compare the case to other similar situations, and in our case we must realise that this is not how coups take place.
By thinking casuistically Maçães can chart the way in which we are evolving culturally. Kantian thinkers, who want everything to fit the principles, are like pre-Darwinian biologists who saw no continuity between old fossils and new creatures. Maçães, with his casuistic frame of mind, is Darwinian, describing the strange creature that has emerged in front of him rather than waving his fossil and saying it doesn’t fit.
Importantly, by resisting the ‘coup!’ narrative that comes with the Donald was a Fascist and Biden Saved Us story, Maçães is able to paint a picture that is, as he says, ‘a more radical shift’ than a straightforward coup. Maçães’ key point is that the American political system ‘is meant to create considerable room for the enactment of political fantasies, while preventing them from becoming too real.’
What happened was as a form of ‘Dreampolitik’. This is why the cry of ‘coup!’ rings hollow. A coup we could deal with in familiar ways, and some people dealt with the event with a familiar narrative. But Maçães’ point is less reassuring. The world is detaching from reality — we are living inside a new Internet based blend of fantasy and reality. ‘At this point, the best one can hope for are better fantasies.’
Not the conclusion you wanted — but casuistry can show us what circumstances we really face. Without that, we are bound to be swept along with the tide, as many of us were during the MAGA years.
Casuistry and the pandemic
This is all important beyond the events at the Capitol. When we think in narratives, we send tweets like this one.
That’s from a man whose state has been failing dismally to deliver the coronavirus vaccine in recent days. You’d think he had other priorities. But calling on an awful President to resign is an easy story to participate in — it won’t make much difference, but it will reassure a lot of people.
Casuistic thinking is similar to Bayesian thinking. In this method, whenever new evidence comes in we reassess our opinions and move ourselves further forward or backward on a scale of confidence. For most commentators, most evidence simply reaffirms their pre-pandemic ideology.
Working out the right way to respond to a pandemic requires subtler, more casuistical skills. In this case, it is Bayesians who have had the best response. People who are entrenched in one side or another have been slow to adapt to circumstances, at a time when speed saves lives. Even those people who have ‘followed the science’ are often impeding progress.
The idea that we should not go to a first doses first vaccine policy is based on the rules of a very different game. The level of caution epidemiologists and ethicists are showing is fine for normal times but deadly for pandemics. Second rate podcasters and radio hosts bickering about data in a casual, often dishonest way, might not make much difference in day to day politics. It’s probably killed a few people in the last few weeks.
To get a grip on these sorts of events we need to think taxonomically and realise everything is different now. If more people in power thought like Sam Bowman — a libertarian of sorts who has taken a pragmatic approach to the pandemic that has influenced policy thinking for the better and been a touchstone of sensible thinking — we’d have been able to save lives.
Rather than jumping into ‘save the economy!’ or ‘no lost generation of schoolchildren!’ narratives, Sam’s casuistic approach was able to show us that this event was not like other situations we had seen before — and would require new sorts of policies to get us through. A lot of libertarian-leaning people gave us the same policy response to this as to everything else. Sam thought like a casuist and gave us a new set of liberal leaning policies that could have saved lives.
Tony Blair and Alex Tabarrok were also key thinkers in this mode — and that’s a major reason why we are seeing the First Doses First policy, which is our best chance to get to herd immunity before the virus outruns us again.
The Bayesian thinking that lead to First Doses First might not get you the same sort of audience in the short run as Cuomo’s posturing, but it will save thousands of lives. We’d be better off listening to Alex Tabarrok than Andrew Cuomo — but when we’re geared for narratives of right and wrong, that’s not easy. Sins of commission are easy to fit into a narrative, and are clearly wrong. Sins of omission are much harder to turn into a denouement.
Changing the narrative
When we think in political narratives, we are thinking about the world as if it was created all at once, and all the templates and models we need to understand it are already available. If we can free ourselves from this, and think casuistically, or like Bayesians, we’ll be able to describe what we see in front of us, understand the evidence. And then act differently.
We may be at a turning point. Rather than listen to the same journalist saying the same things about the same people you can now get expert insight from all sorts of places online. Your opinions about the pandemic are likely to be very different, and more likely to change, if you read MarginalRevolution, follow economists or scientists on Twitter, or take the data reports seriously, than if you just watch the BBC.
I’m using the term casuistic somewhat loosely, and I suspect that someone like Tyler Cowen — who is fairly casuistical on his blog, just look at the comparative examples he’s been posting recently — wouldn’t call himself a casuist. But the internet means it’s much easier for us all to think more like casuists and Bayesians now. And the fact that so much policy debate from epidemiologists was sub-standard, but that we were able to get high-quality, fast response insight from economists online is hugely optimistic. Although the internet looks like it is reinforcing tribal reactions, it might also be creating the conditions for a more empirical, rational, and ultimately nuanced approach to politics.
Here’s hoping the old paradigm really is breaking and this is the start of a new way of talking about politics. I suspect this is the way most people think about their own lives — it can’t be that hard for it to spill over into political thinking as well, can it?
This is a good online summary by Jeramy Townsley.
The Abuse of Casuistry: A history of moral reasoning, by Jonsen and Toulmin is where the example of Geraldine Ferraro comes from. (Google Books link)
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