Malcom Gladwell thinks casuistry gets a bad rap. It’s a method of reasoning, originating with the Jesuit order, whereby moral dilemmas are resolved by extracting or extending theoretical rules from a particular case, and re-applying those rules to new instances. But through the lens of 17th and 18th century critics, it was seen as a sly, evasive, way of justifying questionable practices. Moral relativism! They would cry.
Gladwell, author of such brilliant books as David and Goliath, Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point, makes the case that casuistry is, in fact, a more acute instrument for measuring the morality of an action. In his terrific podcast, Revisionist History, Gladwell applies casuistry to, among other things, judge the PED use of professional baseball players Andy Petite and Barry Bonds. Essentially, he concludes that treating Bonds and Petite the same because of an overarching principle that using performance-enhancing drugs is cheating and must be punished! doesn’t take into account the specific case of each player; specifically, Petite takes PEDs to heal the same injury that pitcher Tommy John suffered and fixed through a revolutionary—and risky— surgery thirty years ago, whereas Bonds used PEDs to gain a performance advantage over every other baseball player (or at least the ones not also using PEDs!). After his PED use, Petite returned to his pre-injury abilities; Bonds, conversely, became a different player entirely as a result of his PED use. Thus, Gladwell opines, Petite should not be punished or vilified as Bonds should be, though they are guilty of the same sin.
He applies the same method to the morality of the birth control pill and its creator, Dr. John Rock. Rock, a devout Catholic, contravened one of the sacred tenets of Catholicism (the prohibition of man-made contraception) when his research led women to be able to prevent pregnancy with the help of a pill. Gladwell concludes that the principle of the law (a law conceived of by celibate men in the cloistered Vatican community) were not applicable to the situation and suffering of so many poor women in the slums of American cities because they were not able to prevent their pregnancies, and thus Rock’s morality should not be found wanting; Rock was choosing one Catholic directive (charity) over another (no contraception) based on the specific cases of these women he sought to help.
Gladwell concludes by observing that the “moral person isn’t one of principles; rather the moral person is the one who knows when it is appropriate to set principles aside.” This is a tricky conclusion, and one that suggests as absence of principle. But Gladwell claims it is not an absence, but rather a selective application, of principles—not to justify and serve immorality but to expand the notion of morality. In other words, not to do bad but to do good.
What, you are asking, does any of this have to do with the college search and application process (as this column purports to be)? A great deal, as it turns out. Too often, a student begins the college search process guided by an overarching principle: the more selective the college, the better. But what if the student can’t afford the price tag at the selective college? What if the selective college is far away and the student needs to be closer to home because she has a sick relative? What if the selective college doesn’t have internships available to freshmen? What if the professors there are too busy doing research to work with undergrads? Can we still say that the more selective the better?
It’s the same with the notion of a “good school.” It’s become a guiding principle of the process. People use the term all the time (is that a “good” school? We only want her to apply to a “good school”); but what, exactly, makes a school “good”? Is it the amount of money that the alumni base donates? Is it the number of students who graduate in four years? Is it the average SAT or ACT score of the admitted class? Is it the percentage of applicants that are admitted? I think we could all persuasively argue that it is none of these things. A school is “good” if it has what the student wants—small classes, for example, or a quidditch team, or a reasonable cost, or professors who focus on undergrads; in fact, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that a school is “good for a particular student” rather than just “good.” In other words, we have to take into account the case of the individual student before we render a judgment on the success or failure of their college application process.
We just went Jesuit!
I’d love to hear your thoughts!