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Moral Laboratories

Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life

Cheryl Mattingly
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Moral Laboratories
    Book Description:

    Moral Laboratoriesis an engaging ethnography and a groundbreaking foray into the anthropology of morality. It takes us on a journey into the lives of African American families caring for children with serious chronic medical conditions, and it foregrounds the uncertainty that affects their struggles for a good life. Challenging depictions of moral transformation as possible only in moments of breakdown or in radical breaches from the ordinary, it offers a compelling portrait of the transformative powers embedded in day-to-day existence. From soccer fields to dinner tables, the everyday emerges as a moral laboratory for reshaping moral life. Cheryl Mattingly offers vivid and heart-wrenching stories to elaborate a first-person ethical framework, forcefully showing the limits of third-person renderings of morality.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95953-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    Once in the late 1980s (more or less), when I was still an unsure graduate student, I attended a panel at one of the annual American Anthropology Association meetings. It was one of those panels whose audience fills an entire hotel conference ballroom. I’ve long since forgotten the topic. The important thing was that extremely influential scholars from both anthropology and philosophy spoke on the panel. Two of my favorite philosophers were there—Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus. They each discussed Heidegger and the significance of his phenomenology for anthropology. They amicably referred to one another’s work in their talks....


    • CHAPTER 1 Experimental Soccer and the Good Life
      (pp. 3-32)

      It could be one of a thousand soccer fields scattered throughout the United States. Grade-school children in their uniforms running up and down the grass shouting to one another as parents cheer them on. An ordinary Saturday afternoon event repeated in countless American towns. Except that in the center of this field, surrounded by screaming children who fly by him, is a boy in a wheelchair propelled by another boy, and they, too, head in the direction of the ball. The boy’s father and mother stand at the sidelines watching the action. Tanya and Frank have three children, two girls...

    • CHAPTER 2 First Person Virtue Ethics and the Anthropology of Morality
      (pp. 33-58)

      Broadly speaking, two philosophical traditions of ethics inform current conversations about morality in anthropology. The most prominent and well known takes as its point of departure Foucault’s conception of subjectivation and “care of the self.” Another draws upon the Anglo-American philosophical revival of neo-Aristotelian ethics (or “virtue ethics”) within ordinary language philosophy with its challenges of culture-independent moral frameworks (primarily Kantian and utilitarian ones). Sometimes these two traditions are brought together in anthropological accounts and are seen as complementary. I take a more contrarian position (for reasons I elaborate subsequently). Admittedly, there is a good deal of overlap in the...


    • CHAPTER 3 Home Experiments: Scenes from the Moral Ordinary
      (pp. 61-79)

      What is this thing called “the ordinary” or “everyday life”? How do we conceptualize it and its role in forming moral selves? As anthropologists work to develop more theoretically rigorous understandings of morality and its place in ordinary life, new metanarratives and primal imaginaries have arisen. I have already proposed one—the “moral laboratory.” Three alternative primal scenes, already hinted at in Chapter 2, offer vivid images that rely upon discursive pictures of moral becoming or that treat the ethical as a contrast space to the ordinary. Each has emerged primarily (though by no means exclusively) through Foucault’s influence.


    • CHAPTER 4 Luck, Friendship, and the Narrative Self
      (pp. 80-98)

      Western antiquity offered a view of the human condition that was not self-sustaining. In this cosmology, not only were humans subordinate to the gods, the gods who ruled them were fickle and could not be trusted. Through no fault of their own, humans could be subjected to bad luck because of celestial recklessness, malice, or sheer godly indifference to human concerns. This was a matter of considerable worry and debate among ancient philosophers. How did one create a good life when life was, at best, under partial control? When fate played such a significant role in shaping human destiny? Contemporary...

    • CHAPTER 5 Moral Tragedy: The Perils of a Superstrong Black Mother
      (pp. 99-121)

      Dotty’s daughter Betsy has sickle cell anemia.¹ This genetic disease can be quite mild or, in cases like Betsy’s, it can become so severe that it precipitates medical crises that are life threatening. It is not the kind of illness that one can necessarily detect from a person’s physical appearance, but it can radically alter a person’s life. In Betsy’s case, it has meant repeated trips to the emergency room during acute episodes, weekly overnight stays in the hospital to receive blood transfusions, managing a host of medications, living with pain that is chronic and can become excruciating, having compromised...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Flight of the Blue Balloons: Narrative Suspense and the Play of Possible Selves
      (pp. 122-150)

      Many complaints have been leveled against the idea of a first person narrative self. I mentioned some of them in chapters 1 and 2. Challenges come from several quarters. They are not only a product of postmodern/poststructuralist “death of the author” declarations but are also expressed by phenomenologists concerned that linking narrative so closely with a conception of the self is deeply misleading. These critiques made by scholars embracing a first person phenomenology are important to attend to in light of my own project. Two are recurrently voiced. One, a narrative self suggests too much coherence and a simple linear...


    • CHAPTER 7 Rival Moral Traditions and the Miracle Baby
      (pp. 153-177)

      A key agenda of critical theorists—problematizing the moral norms of everyday life—becomes, at times, an agenda of people everywhere when confronting moral dilemmas and tasks. In earlier chapters, I explored a range of cultural resources parents draw upon as they struggle to create good lives, or at least the best one possible, for their children. Up until this point, my primary analytic attention has been on how to conceptualize projects of moral becoming and attempts at transformation in a “thick” way that does justice to the complexity of these endeavors. I have said comparatively less, in a cultural...

    • CHAPTER 8 Dueling Confessions: Revolution in the First Person
      (pp. 178-201)

      Leroy was not the first child in our study to die, but his death was the most unexpected. I first found out about his murder through Olga Solomon, one of the researchers on the team who had been close with the whole family for several years. Leroy’s mother Marcy had just phoned her and announced that Leroy had passed away that day in a local hospital. I was stunned. Violence was not an uncommon occurrence for some of the poorer families residing in rough neighborhoods. Certainly it had been part of this family’s life. But this, the sudden death of...

    • CHAPTER 9 Tragedy, Possibility, and Philosophical Anthropology
      (pp. 202-218)

      It is a tricky business to speak of moral possibility when considering a group of people as systematically disenfranchised as those I have written about. I have filled this book with tragic tales. These tragedies not only document a relentless onslaught of bad luck and the structural oppression that poverty and racism deliver. They also reveal how deeply people find themselves haunted by the possibility of moral failure, by their inability to sufficiently protect the vulnerable children in their care, or to protect their own moral hearts. And yet, this is not a despairing book. In considering the moral efforts...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 219-230)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-252)
  10. Index
    (pp. 253-261)