Concrete or Casuistry?


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.


20111126-171134.jpgInteresting to read, this week, that our recollection of painful surgery records only two coordinates – the peak of pain, and how much it hurt at the end. Duration is curiously absent, as a significant part of our recollection of pain.

This certainly fits with my memory of the handful of times I’ve been operated on. All I remember is the ‘peak pain’ of the sharp, intense – and after several repeats, increasingly unbearable – pain of multiple local anaesthetic injections going in, before they start to work.

As for the end, just a curious mixture of dull and sharp pain – like a cross between a paper cut and a bad bruise. It is as if we remember the horror moment. And how the story ends. But nothing in-between…

I was talking to someone this week about painful relationships between organisations – and I wondered out loud, if it’s the same. You remember the worst they did to you, and how it was last time you saw them, but – as with pain – not much in-between.

This is an interesting thought. At work, is it your worst behaviour – personal or organisational – which scars the deepest? And is how you ‘are’ next, your considerable opportunity for major salvation.

It might mean worrying a lot less about situations and relationships which have been bad for ages. Only attend to them when you can do something significant to change how the ‘story’ ends.

Dysfunctional relations between organisations and people are part and parcel of the world of work. Treating them like pain might be an interesting approach – mitigate the worst pain, worry less about the duration of discomfort. And attend to them, only, when you can make things a lot better.