A Crying Need for Casuistry

A young man in social media has posted a complaint, which has been going around.  His girl friend wanted to go out with her female friends to visit a place the man thought unsafe and unsuitable.  He made her promise not to go, and the next day he learned she had gone, with the predictable result of rape and battery. How should the boyfriend respond?

The young man declared that was enough for him and he broke up with her.  Many commenters thought he had done the right thing and condemned the girl friend out of hand, and declared that she was obliged to do what her boyfriend had told her to do.  When some ventured to suggest he was being too harsh, one told them they were being haters.  I composed the following response but for obvious reasons I did not post it:

As a student of Christian ethics, I would modestly suggest there are at least two moral questions here--probably a third, which is how stupid can he have been to be going out with a woman who lies in order to justify going places she shouldn't?--and the first has to do with whether or not he should continue to go out with her, much less regard her as a girl friend. Here the answer is clearly, no, unless there is some complicating factor such as she is carrying his baby, or he had done something foolish to provoke her.

The second, is do we have an obligation to lovers and friends when they are in trouble, even when the trouble is caused by their own bad decision? Absent aggravating factors, the more probable answer in this case is, yes. A visit with friends, a few kind words would not be out of place. Yes, she did something very foolish and is paying a terrible price for it, but if he had cared enough for her when he regarded her as his girl friend, then even when he as decided to escape from the erotic tangles, he might be expected to behave decently toward a woman he has probably been sleeping with.

Since all we have is his version of the story, however, one should not rush to judgment in either direction, and if he saw her the next day, he may well have done the right thing by doing something to comfort her in her distress. Nonetheless, if this were an example in a casuistry handbook, I'd say charity should be shown in particular to those to whom it is due. Suppose as a parallel a good male friend had let him down when he was most needed--refused to bail him out of jail, even though he had the money, or did not show up to testify in court, when his testimony was needed, and then the next day this friend got into a near-fatal car crash. Does he visit him in the hospital, when he asks, or does he tell him to get stuffed for being a false friend?

One question we cannot answer, because of the brevity and self-righteousness of the man's account, is how much of his rejection is based on a rational judgment that she is someone to avoid and how much comes from resentment she did not do as she was told.

By the way, I should suggest that if a man wants the right to tell a woman what to do, there are a few preliminary steps such as buying the ring, getting engaged, getting to the church on time. As a final note, the equation of the right thing with the hard thing has an awfully Puritanical, even Manichaean ring. It is hard for a parent to reject a wilful child--and probably wrong. We are so constructed by our Creator that often the right thing is what we are programmed to feel good about it. But neither pleasure nor pain are a proper criterion for making moral judgments.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In discussing actual circumstances with only one side given, it is not safe to make assumptions.

  2. Dot says:

    I stand by my comment based on what was written.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Dot, everyone is tempted to stand by his opinion, right or wrong. Since neither of us knows the man in question, we can have no idea of what he knew or what he was thinking, and since I am the only one who actually read what he posted, it is entirely pointless to engage in a dispute over something we cannot know. That is precisely why I switched from the actual example of this case to a model case that might appear in a textbook on casuistry. In such a case, we can either make the assumption that he knew what he was talking about or we can assume that he simply did not want his girlfriend to have a good time without him and turned out, accidentally, to have been correct. Neither parallel I proposed were intended to be exact or perfect but only to illustrate the question: When friends let us down, do we still sometimes have obligations toward them. In the case of bail, I might have stipulated that the friend had offered to go bail, but that is necessary. If you won’t bail a friend, if you have the money, then you are failing in one of the duties of friendship.

  4. Dot says:

    I have a different perspective, it is based on experience and with support only from a group of certain people. Please let it go at that.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am sorry Dot, but your experiences are as irrelevant as mine, if we are dealing with actual human beings we do not know. This is very important to understand. We are not privileged to make judgments on the motives and knowledge of people of whom we know nothing. We can of course speculate, as if we were writing fiction, in order to make coherent sense, but we cannot know. Your plot is perfectly comprehensible and highly probable, and you are in fact making the same assumption that I am about the situation. The trouble is, we simply cannot know.

  6. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming, I agree that I can’t make decisions or judgements based on human beings I do not know however, I try to take the middle ground – that some things can go either way and in the situation you presented that is what I did. The fellow in question needed to take the middle ground. She made a bad decision but went with it anyway. When a man wants to marry a woman, he would like to marry one who never slept with another male or males. But times have greatly changed.

    In example #2, if someone gets in trouble because he made a bad decision and refused to help him out by not posting bail you can and should support him but to solve his problems by paying bail doesn’t help the fellow at all. I hate to sound so harsh but there are times when some doubt and no is the best answer.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Friendship entails duties. If I had a friend of sufficient means who would not stand bail, he would not be a friend, and I would refuse to meet him again. There is no moral counter-argument that can be entertained among Christian, civilized, or good barbarian people. It is a point on which Boethius and Alaric the Visigoth would converge. ‘Nuff said. I should not have said this if I had not wanted to make clear the moral points at issue. Love and friendship, while they may spring from affection, are not mere feelings but ties that bind us in particular obligations.

  8. Dom says:

    It appears to be an intense expression of Eteoclean frustration. An impossible coincidence: this man is in the “book club”.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ve closed comments on this post. The point of the original post seems to have evaporated.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Not quite.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:


  12. Dot says:

    I don’t understand what the problem is with my comment. It’s only an opinion. I also don’t consider myself a feminist but I am getting another opinion about this organization.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Nothing was said about comments, much less about there being a problem with any comments. What is stated is that “The point of the original post seems to have evaporated.” Indeed it has. The point was to use a brief narrative that had been circulating in social media to highlight the inadequacy of much moral reasoning today, and to raise the possibility that we may still have certain obligations to friends, relations, lovers who have let us down. This point was ultimately loss in a discussion of hypotheticals that really had no bearing on the piece. That this or that position may be someone’s “opinion” is of no significance. Unless it can be shown that having unsupported opinions is a positive feature of human life, I’ll stand by the Socratic view that opinion–Greek doxa–is what appears to someone to be true but for which he cannot make a rational case. I dislike caramelized onions–that is my opinion, supported only by the peculiarities of my taste. There is no point in arguing about this with my wife, children, and gourmet chefs who enjoy them. But if I express disapproval of infanticide or adultery or looting, it is not an expression of an opinion but the result of both experience and reason applied to experience. If operating a website and writing columns were done only for me or others to vent their opinions, I should close it down today.