casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.
As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.
But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:
“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”
Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.
Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.