Boom Times in Casuistry 101

Or why future government officials might be found boning up on sophistic ethics


One night last week I called up a friend of mine, an associate professor of philosophy, and invited him over for a few beers. Harold and I like to get together once in awhile to talk about baseball, usually about the 1957 Yankees. (I have another friend, Max, a New York City sanitation man, whom I call when I want to pursue a rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, and conduct. What Harold doesn't know about baseball, Max doesn't know about philosophy; so I can usually hold my own in either discussion. My therapist tells me this is absolutely essential.)

My friend the philosopher refused to come. "Call up Max," he suggested.

"But I want to talk about baseball, not philosophy. Max would kill me on baseball." Harold said nothing. "Besides, I've got a cold case of Pabst in the refrigerator."

"I'll be right over." In college, Harold's favorite pastimes had been drinking beer and talking about philosophy. He had, in fact, decided to become a philosophy teacher only after reconciling himself to the fact that no one would pay him to drink beer all day. (Harold will usually come over for Pabst. Max will come for nothing less than Lowenbrau. After seven years with the New York City Sanitation Department, he has acquired some very expensive tastes.)

"So, Harold, they keeping you busy at the university or what?" I asked somewhat doubtfully when he arrived at my apartment. For three years now his only summer course had been Casuistry 101. During that time very few people had demonstrated much interest in riding on hot subways to attend lectures on casuistry. Harold's lecture notes began to gather dust. Harold himself had gotten rather dusty in past summers. Tonight, though, he looked worn to a frazzle.

"This year," Harold said slowly, with a trace of disbelief, "I've got 227 students in Casuistry 101."

I whistled softly. "How come it's so popular all of a sudden?" I asked, forgetting for the moment my carefully researched anecdote about an incident involving Casey Stengel and Don Larsen, which had occurred in 1956 during an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians.

"Well," Harold began, "years and years ago casuistry was a sort of a priori application of general principles used to determine ethical courses of action in any given situation. Oh, there were some arguments over details between the Tutorists and the Laxists, and the Probabilorists didn't always see eye-to-eye with the Aequitrobalists. But basically they all used casuistry as some sort of a priori guide to be applied in moral decision-making." Harold paused for a sip of beer. "On the other hand," he continued, "what we have today is Retroactive Casuistry."

"Retroactive Casuistry?" I got myself another beer. "How's that different from 20-20 hindsight?"

"Night and day, old buddy." The Pabst was clearly beginning to get to him. "Night and day. With hindsight you look back and see what you should have done. With Retroactive Casuistry, you look back and demonstrate that whatever you actually did was ethically impeccable."

I was beginning to see where it could be pretty valuable.

"You know," Harold mused, "more than half of the class is made up of pre-law and government majors."

"Pre-law I can understand," I commented. "I'd imagine that when you know someone is guilty—say a rapist—and you get him off, you'd feel terrible on payday unless you could do an impressive moral tap dance about the importance of due process. But what about the government majors?"

Harold opened another beer and put his feet up. "I guess they want to be sure that during their political careers they will always be able to explain to the voters that their actions—no matter how self-serving they might appear to the untrained observer—actually proceeded from the highest moral principles." Harold has always hated politicians and congenital punsters.

"Well," I asked him tentatively, "do you think it will work?"

"Will it work?" He was starting to swagger already. I was sorry I had asked a question instead of swinging right into my Don Larsen story. "Will it work? Wake up and smell the coffee, boy! What about Tong Sun Park?"

"The Korean influence buyer?"

"The very same. When that first broke, Congress tried to wriggle off the hook with a little retroactive casuistry."

"How so?"

"They explained that they thought Park was a businessman—and certainly there's no harm in accepting tokens of affection from a businessman. Only later did they learn he was a Korean agent. Instead of being influence peddlers, the congressmen become innocent victims of unscrupulous Oriental inscrutability. Guiltless dupes. Overtones of the Yellow Peril and so forth."

"Very neat," I murmured, wondering why I had one beer in each hand.

"The pay raise! The pay raise!" Harold was shouting now, waving his arms wildly. "Tip O'Neill says if you don't have the guts to support it, get the hell out of Congress. To the skilled casuist, avarice becomes fortitude."

"Sounds more like 'The Emperor's New Clothes' to me," I countered glumly.

"Don't be such a spoil sport," he admonished. "Why don't you just get into the spirit of things?"

I didn't want to get into the spirit of things. I wanted to find one good example to refute Harold. It took me quite awhile, but I finally found one. "Jimmy Carter owed no federal income tax in 1976. But he paid $6,000 because he thought everyone who has benefited from the American system ought to pay some federal income tax. Show me the specious logic there," I concluded as defiantly as I could.

Harold grinned slyly. "The only guy I know who made 50 grand last year would have cut off his feet to pay six thousand and get away with it. Good ole Jimmy pays six, makes out like a bandit, and smells like a rose at the same time. Even Jody Powell couldn't keep a straight face."

We sat there for a while without talking. I could feel months of therapy being eroded.

"So, who else is in the class?" I finally managed weakly.

"That's what I can't figure out," Harold answered. "I've got 106 journalism majors. What the hell they would want with casuistry I don't know. Keep up with the politicians maybe."

"Keep up, schmeep up!" My flash of insight came so suddenly that there was no time to think of a more urbane expletive. "Those kids are taking your class to get the philosophical underpinnings for the suits of shining armor that journalists have taken to these days. I understand that armor is very uncomfortable without the proper lingerie."

"Now wait just a minute—don't you think they deserve that suit of armor just a little bit? Look at Watergate. If it wasn't for the news media, that whole mess would have been swept under the rug. It's just like Saint whats-his-name and the dragon."

"My dear Harold," I countered grandly, "that is a hackneyed conclusion acquired not by logic but by osmosis." I dug around on the coffee table for an article by Eugene McCarthy. "Listen to this. 'The press had generally accepted and approved the methods of the Washington Post in its investigation of the Watergate case, even though the methods of the President's men and the method of the Post's men differed only slightly.…Both the President's men and the Post's men justified their methods on the grounds that they were serving a higher purpose.' What do you say to that, Harry my lad?"

If he had been thinking clearly, he could probably have made the justification of the means by the ends sound splendid. Instead he became emotional.

"You must be drunk," he snarled. As a matter of fact we were both pretty drunk by this time. "An unfettered press is the cornerstone of American liberty. Their cry is the cry of the people! The press is the unflagging guardian of our human rights. One week they shut down Hustler. The next week it'll be Time—and then what?"

"Nobody will have anything to talk about at cocktail parties?" It was just a wild guess, but Harold pretended not to have heard me. My assertiveness training was beginning to pay off.

"The press is the American citizens' last bulwark against big government and big business!" He was almost in tears.

"The news media is big business!" I was annoyed with myself (I should have said are big business), and so I lashed out even more viciously. "If there were no Walter Cronkite," I sneered, "Metamucil would have had to invent one."

At this blasphemy, Harold rent his garments, poured his beer over my head, and stalked out. I haven't seen him since.

On the whole, though, as I look back, I am pleased with myself. My therapist agrees that I have made great progress. He assures me that in another couple of weeks I'll be talking baseball with Max. And my assertiveness coach assures me that before I know it, I'll be ready for the subway.

Peter Fasolino is a free-lance writer.