‘Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life’ reviewed by Ezelle Sanford III

Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life By Cheryl Mattingly (University of California Press, 2014).


MLExploring the ethics of care, Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life demonstrates that moral systems particularly in ordinary clinical settings is never universal. Mattingly demonstrates how anthropology, philosophy, and ethics can be deployed to excavate the reasons behind health decision- making by patients, families, and clinicians alike.

How can one best obtain a virtuous ‘good life’? In what ways do the ethics of care, especially for disabled and chronically ill children, become sites of contention, experimentation, and possibility? Anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly answers these questions as she draws from a more than fourteen year collaborative research study of African American families who have children living with disabilities in the Los Angeles area. Those familiar with Mattingly’s previous work, particularly her first book The Paradox of Hope (2010), will reencounter familiar participants who reappear in her second book, Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. Moral Laboratories is, primarily, a contribution to the emergence of an ‘anthropology of morality’ and strives to reshape how anthropologists document, interpret, and work with theoretical traditions of ethics and empirical observations of morality at work in the field.

Mattingly works against customary ‘third person’ or ‘universal’ articulations of morality, demonstrating that morality and moral decision making are relative, contextual, and interactional. Thus the author posits a ‘first person virtue ethics,’ emerging from the intersection of phenomenological and neo-Aristotelian traditions of ethics. Mattingly openly acknowledges her indebtedness to Charles Taylor’s ‘“thick” first person phenomenology’ (p. xvi), arguing that moral decision-making and moral becoming are made and experienced by individuals who are themselves deeply embedded and influenced by networks of intersubjectivity. These processes, documented by rigorously analysed ethnographic vignettes operating in each chapter, show that morality is always worked and experimented upon in the context of others, the family being the primary site.

Mattingly convincingly describes morality as process not by exploring moral complexities in extraordinary moments of life, nor does she understand morality to be a universal norm, rather it is the dilemmas and perils of everyday moments, the ‘moral ordinary,’ and everyday spaces, what she terms the ‘moral laboratory,’ where moral experimentation and experience occur. She defines moral laboratories, the home, the church, the clinic, and the street, as ‘spaces of possibility, ones that create experiences that are also experiments in how life might or should be lived. Each experiment holds its perils. Each provokes moments of critique, especially self-critique’ (p. 15).

In these ordinary moments and places, moral dilemmas and contentious moral perspectives offer the possibility of individual moral experimentation to achieve the best possible ‘good life’. Such experiments and experiences become transformational projects of moral becoming, embedded within complex and often simultaneous narratives that escape temporal logics of past and future. The moral ordinary holds moments of critique and transformation—in essence, these moments of ordinary life become themselves extraordinary and, as Mattingly asserts in later chapters, culturally and politically revolutionary.

Mattingly divides her book into three parts which reflect the broader trajectory of her argument. Just as obtaining the ‘good life’ emerges from the dialogic experiments of everyday dilemmas and perils, the author frames much of her book in the form of debates, pitting theoretical traditions of ethics against one another while also depicting the moral play caregivers embrace to provide the best possible ‘good life’ for ailing children.

Part one, ‘First Person Virtue Ethics’ is the most theoretically rich and positions her work within the broader fields of anthropology and philosophy. Chapter one presents a cogent explanation of the fields and ethical traditions, the general foundation of her argument (explored above), and her first person virtue ethics intervention. Her second chapter anticipates potential critiques and misapplications of her interventions, particularly in the reductioninist debates of individual agency and societal structures. For those who may get lost in the theoretical debates within the opening chapters of the book, Part Two – ‘Moral Becoming and the Everyday’- provides beautifully narrated and moving ethnographic vignettes which illustrate her approach to a first person virtue ethics as manifest in the dilemmas of everyday life. These ethnographies put forth singular moments of moral dilemmas, not to be confused with temporal singularity, as evidence for her larger theoretical claims. The last part of Moral Laboratories, ‘Moral Pluralisms as Cultural Possibility,’ explores the potentially revolutionary implications of moral experimentation in everyday life. Mattingly concludes with expanded updates on the book’s central subjects at the time of its writing, along with a final synopsis of her argument.

Mattingly convincingly bolsters her claims to a relative and contextual approach to a first person virtue ethics. Using two traditions of philosophical though, phenomenology and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, her intervention is strong and will certainly help anthropologists reconsider approaches to morality. Whiter race has any theoretical importance to her work is less convincing. Readers interested in a rigorous treatment of race as it intersects with medicine, particularly in clinical spaces, will not find much here. Though her subjects are all African American, Black traditions of morality are left unexplored, unexplained, and find no place within the larger theoretical work of Part one. With the exception of cursory references to Toni Morrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes among prominent black scholars, the racial identity of her subjects seems to be inconsequential to her larger argument.

To be fair however, Mattingly never fully claims to make an intervention into the study of race and medicine. Yet the marketing of the book, from the Library of Congress subject headings, to the back cover summary, conjure the primacy of racial identity. Mattingly most certainly could have made her arguments about the morality of the ordinary and of a first person virtue ethics, using another subject population. Had she paid more attention to this important thread, a strong book would have been made stronger and would have made interventions into a much broader array of scholarly disciplines. This is not to say, however, that her overall arguments concerning morality are not useful; rather, her use of African American interlocutors reads more incidental than intentional.

Anthropologists, particularly those interested in morality and care, philosophers, and clinicians would certainly find Mattingly’s text useful albeit for differing reasons. Though the text is theoretically rich, one does not necessarily need to be steeped in philosophical traditions. Mattingly provides concise and coherent summaries of the field in Part one. However, such a background would aid the reader to fully understand Mattingly’s primary intervention into the anthropology of morality. Familiarity with Mattingly’s previous work, The Paradox of Hope, would give readers more context of the larger study, from which material is used here. Because this text is theoretically dense, it is recommended for graduate students, professionals, and scholars. The astute undergraduate may find the ethnographic sections (Parts Two and Three) a useful demonstration in the practice of combining ethnography and theory. Clinicians may find the text useful for understanding what Mattingly calls ‘moral pluralisms’ of care. Overall Moral Laboratories is an excellent demonstration of ethnographic and theoretical work and many readers will find useful material throughout.



Reviewed by Ezelle Sanford III, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science.  Working at the intersection of history, black studies, and anthropology, he studies race, medicine, and public health from the 19th century to the present.  Specifically, his research interests trace the role of black medical professionals, the black hospital, contemporary health policy, and health activism.  His dissertation project, ‘A Source of Pride, A Vision of Progress’ proposes to uncover the complex inter- and intra-racial social relationships within and surrounding the Homer G. Phillips hospital of St. Louis, MO, while providing new insights for writing institutional history.

Correspondence to Ezelle Sanford.

Works cited:

Mattingly, C. 2010. The Paradox of Hope: Journeys through a Clinical Borderland. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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