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

Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. Cheryl Mattingly. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014, 261 pp.

As an anthropologist working with U.S. families, I was thrilled to review Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories. Writing—let alone theorizing—family life is terribly difficult and this book ambitiously takes on both tasks.

Moral Laboratories is structured to provide a robust articulation of first-person virtue ethics. Part One draws a sharp contrast between Foucauldian and neo-Aristotilean ethical traditions. Mattingly writes against a third-person moral philosophy, epitomized by the Foucauldian discourse that, she rightly argues, has become predominant—near canonical—in contemporary anthropological theory. Moral Laboratories provides a welcome opportunity for anthropologists to reflect on theoretical assumptions and stances that have taken hold in the discipline.

Part One is written with the clarity of thought borne of an intense immersion in, and engagement with, a range of ethical positions and an impressive breadth of scholarship, demonstrating Mattingly’s near-surgical facility with the nuances of philosophical traditions.

The book takes flight, however, in Parts Two and Three in chapters that weave masterful ethnographic writing with nuanced theoretical reflection. In these chapters, Mattingly attends to micro, evanescent moments in family life that reveal the sublime in the quotidian. She persuasively demonstrates that family life is a generative context for theory building. Mattingly’s interest in the “singular event” and the particularities of experience are the contexts in which her central argument takes shape. Mattingly uses these moments to argue that ordinary routines of family life are the crucible for an ongoing, indeterminate process of moral becoming. Her careful magnification of these moments reveals them as moral spaces of experimentation, of striving and possibility.

These “moral laboratories” are interactive, risky spaces wherein individuals create opportunities to enact and become new (or renewed) selves oriented to a new “best good” for themselves and for their families. Nevertheless, the characterization of these moments and routines as ordinary deserves additional unpacking. While I agree that, over time, responses to events such as a child’s severe burn or the ongoing struggles and joys of parenting a medically fragile infant become routinized as a part of everyday life, it seems to me that suffering—experience out of the ordinary—remains the catalyst for the emergence of moral laboratories. It would seem that there must be some calling forth, some rupture in the flow of family life, to set the moral laboratory in motion.

More broadly, I think it is useful to gain critical distance in order to reflect on the recent moral turn in anthropology. How is the theoretical category of the moral—moral experience, moral agency—linked to enduring concerns for medical and psychological anthropology?

Mattingly’s vision of first-person moral selves is insistently relational—the “I” connected inextricably to the “we.” This stance, which is a departure from ethical renderings that privilege individual selves, echoes the Sapirian (1949) “locus of culture” in the interactive spaces between individuals; Jackson’s (1996) call for explorations of a “field of intersubjectivity” in which “experience is situated within relationships and between persons” (p. 26); and, perhaps most directly, Kleinman’s (1999) articulation of intersubjectivity as involving the “interpenetration of the moral and emotional, the social and the subjective” (p. 378).

These conceptual overlaps demand that we specify what purchase is gained by speaking of experience in explicitly ‘moral’ terms. A deep commitment to a first-person, experience-near anthropology should always have an uneasy relationship with the abstractions of theory and we need always to be mindful of the capacities of our theoretical frames to conceal as well as reveal.

I read Moral Laboratories as an invitation to a sustained dialogue and continued reflexive critique necessary at this moment in medical and psychological anthropology in which many of us are navigating the convergence of ethnography, moral philosophy, and culture theory. Moral Laboratories is itself a “ground project” involving the amplification of the theoretical possibilities of family life. This is tremendously important work for medical and psychological anthropology and, especially, for scholars of families and others who strive to privilege the intimate in their work. As Mattingly writes, “Discovering and illuminating the drama of ordinary life is one of anthropology’s most important unmasking tasks” (p. 206). Mattingly accomplishes a great deal to that end as she unflinchingly attends to the intermingling of hope and fear, tragedy and possibility, in the everyday lives of families.

References Cited
Jackson, M., ed.
1996 Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kleinman, A.
1999 Experience and Its Moral Modes: Culture, Human Conditions, and Disorder. Tanner Lectures on Human Values. In The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 20, G. B. Peterson, ed. Pp. 357–420. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

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