Moral Laboratories is 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.
Moral Laboratories Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life
Experimental Soccer and the Good Life
The Soccer Game
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 and a boy who is their oldest. Their son Andy was born with cerebral palsy, an extremely severe case that not only leaves him physically disabled but very cognitively impaired as well. Despite this, Tanya especially knows how to communicate with him and reads his expressions easily. In fact, he shows his temper in no uncertain terms-smiling or glowering with an intensity that is hard to ignore. Tanya is determined to fight for her son's rights to good schooling, and she is fierce in her determination to stand up to school board members, principals, and other public officials to try to get good care for her son. "It's my Jamaican blood," she laughs in justifying her willingness to battle authorities.
But it was her husband Frank who she credits with opening her eyes about her son's capabilities to participate in everyday children's activities that she would have shielded him from. Her husband is an athlete. When the economy was better, he was a personal trainer at a gym, and he is a natural at many sports. A son, his son, should love sports as much as he does, he maintained. Even when Andy was quite young, Frank devised a host of creative ways to bring him into favorite family sports played with his two younger sisters. He installed a basketball hoop in the backyard, and he and Andy would "shoot hoops" together as he lifted him out of the wheelchair high enough above the rim so that Andy could drop the ball and score a goal.
When Andy got older and bigger, Frank decided that he should get Andy involved in the local children's soccer team. Although it was a "special needs" soccer team, the children had cognitive disabilities rather than physical ones. Certainly none used wheelchairs or had the physical frailties Andy did. Tanya was terrified and absolutely refused. She and her husband fought about this for several years. What if he falls? she worried. Soccer can be a rough sport. He is so medically fragile-what can he do in his wheelchair? But her husband prevailed and she let her son go on the field. During one of those games, just as she feared, children accidentally knocked over his wheelchair and he toppled down. But, to her great surprise, he was not only okay; he didn't even seem to mind. He didn't act frightened at all. "Oh I was scared to death," she recounts. "But I guess my husband was right. I didn't realize I was holding Andy back, not letting him be the kid he should get to be." This is a story she has told more than once. It moves her every time. It catches her up short, this realization that despite all her determination that others see her son as capable, she herself underestimated him.
Care and Its Moral Complexities
How might we think of Tanya's situation as an ethical problem? How, more specifically, does it pose a problem for her as related to her practices of care? Tanya is one of the parents I have come to know through the years as my colleagues and I have carried out an ethnographic study of African American families in Los Angeles who are raising children with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses. Parents are called upon to try to ascertain what is best for their children and for themselves in the changing circumstances of everyday life and in midst of the many other tasks and problems that they must simultaneously address. This is, in other words, a complex reasoning task that engenders ongoing moral deliberations, evaluations, and experiments in how to live.
In the face of the suffering and challenges of their children, parents often find themselves propelled in a quest to imagine a new sort of life for themselves or to become different kinds of persons. They are propelled into a new, often unexpected and unwanted project of becoming. Suffering can engender new or intensified moral responsibilities. These, too, may demand a transformative effort to reimagine not only what will happen, but also what ought to happen, or how one ought to respond not only to difficulties and suffering but also to unexpected possibilities (Mattingly 2010a). The work of care, in other words, demands the work of cultivating virtues to be, for example, a "good enough" parent. As one father put it, you have to "step up to the plate" to raise a very sick child, and this can prove an almost impossible feat. Parents' ability to respond to the call or needs of their vulnerable children, and to create a social world in which their children can be better cared for, become primary moral projects, often superseding their own personal dreams and goals. Furthermore, these are social moral projects that change shape over time, requiring the development of communities of care, an expanding "we" that brings together an array of people outside the immediate family, including neighbors and friends, other parents, and clinical professionals.
Such moral work can provoke a critical examination of one's life and one's character, an attempt to transform the practical engagements and commitments of oneself, one's family, even one's community. It can also precipitate efforts to transform not only oneself but also the social and material spaces in which one lives. The moral (or ethical) engine of these efforts of transformation is a "ground project" (as the philosopher Bernard Williams  speaks of it) that I am simply calling "care of the intimate other." I explore the moral complexity of ground projects, practices of care that parents (using the term broadly to include all parenting kin in a family) undertake in circumstances that are fraught and uncertain, when it often seems impossible to find any best good that is worth acting upon, but where, nonetheless, people continue to care about and struggle to obtain some version of a good life. I use the terms moral and ethical interchangeably throughout. There are theoretical reasons for my doing so, just as - for different theoretical reasons-many scholars differentiate the two. I won't say more at this stage; this is a matter for discussion further down the road. (Especially in chapters 2 and 3.)
The ethnographic heart of this book has emerged from a research project that began in January 1997 and continued until 2011. It has followed African American families residing in Los Angeles County, many from South Central LA. The research has been carried out by a larger, interdisciplinary research team under the direction of Mary Lawlor and myself. I have described the parameters and key questions motivating the research elsewhere (see especially Mattingly 2010b), and I do not go into much detail here. The study is officially over, though a number of us who constituted the core research team continue to be in contact with these families. There have been close to fifty families in the study altogether (and approximately thirty at any one time). Twenty of them participated for more than ten years. Because I have known the families I write about for so many years, I have had the chance to consider, from many angles and over time, what it has meant for various members of the family to undertake these arduous projects of care. Although I rely upon what I have learned from this wide range of participants, in this book I concentrate primarily upon five families. Mostly I speak of mothers or grandmothers, because in our study they have been the ones most involved in bringing up the children. However, not only mothers but also fathers, aunts, older siblings, even cousins can play a central role in providing care. Their voices too are periodically heard.
The work of raising "good" children is a "universal function of the family," anthropologists have argued (Och and Kramer-Sadlit 2007). Focus upon the family as a primary moral site is especially pertinent within the African American community, where, for many historical, political, and economic reasons, including systematic exclusion from the public life of work and career, the domestic space of the family and the care of children have served as an essential ground project. Many factors, including poverty, have also propelled African American families to be flexible and creative in their kinship arrangements. The importance of family, with a mother or grandmother often functioning as the ethical lynchpin, is a well-known feature of African American life and moral discourse.
In the context of African American families, one cannot overemphasize the centrality of what Collins (2000) has called the "Superstrong Black Mother" as a highly valued moral ideal around which a whole constellation of virtues have been extolled and, in the hands of black feminist scholars, also problematized. This ideal type centers upon the primary task of care for and protecting others, especially one's children. These qualities and virtues include being "self-reliant and resourceful," "assertive," "self-sacrificing," and, above all, as the name implies, "strong." This overarching quality of strength so often associated with the "stereotypical black woman" encompasses a range of other related or synonymous attributes, including being "authoritarian, compelling, competent, courageous, decisive, emphatic, fiery, firm, loud, persistent, powerful, tenacious, vigorous, and zealous" (Blackman 1999:105). Although not all of these characteristics may seem to be virtues, scholars of African American experience have argued their historical necessity from slavery onward and note that they continue to be essential attributes for black women living within a contemporary and still racist America. Strength, in all its many forms, is needed, because the task of caring for and protecting oneself and one's family demands struggle-or to borrow an old expression once used by formerly enslaved black women-it demands one "straggle," which means to "struggle, strive and drag all at once" (Miles 2008:101). Feminists have emphasized that this portrait of good motherhood equates it with a relentless willingness to strive and struggle, even a kind of martyrdom. "Strength" has operated as a "cultural mandate," a moral imperative "to exhibit an automatic endurance to a life perceived as filled with obstacles, unfairness, and tellingly, a lack of assistance from others" (Beauboeuf-Lafontant 2007:31). As a Superstrong Black Woman, one is inevitably guilty, already sentenced. Life itself is a matter of "doing hard time."
Feminists have challenged morally idealized representations of the "Superstrong Black Mother" even when acknowledging that it represents important qualities African American women have had to cultivate. There are resonances between this critical feminist perspective and the views expressed by many of the parents. They would generally concur that being a strong black mother (or father) has meant unrelenting sacrifice and the postponement or abandonment of personal dreams. It has also meant confronting the ways they fall short of this ideal. But I suggest throughout this book that the moral demands these parents face are not adequately captured by the difficulties of living up to the performative requirements of this subject position. It is not merely (though this is no small thing) that they may feel imprisoned by a position that is too difficult to attain, or by the need to perform a role against their own inner feelings or desires. Moral life poses even worse difficulties than this. Performative troubles often pale against the life-and-death struggles so many of their children face and the kind of demands this places upon parents. Again and again, I return to the moral perils parents encounter as they undertake in the task of trying to become Superstrong Black Parents. I look especially at how often their lives are threatened by moral tragedy.
The home is obviously a crucial site in which parenting occurs and family life is created, but it is only one of the many moral spaces families traverse in their practices of care. Schools, parks, churches, clinics, neighborhoods-all these are central. Each such social and institutional world is characterized by an array of specific norms and practices. Morally speaking, these are not homogeneous spaces, and they are often conflicting ones. As parents move among them, they encounter and must navigate multiple moral normativities and authorities, including ones that clash with their own sense of a "good life" for their children or for their families. Following families and children into a variety of moral spaces that make distinct and authoritative claims about the "good life" reveals in a particularly vivid way that moral resources for self-making are not contained within particular "local moral worlds" or "regimes of truth" but rather are drawn from an uneasily coexisting "assemblage" of ideals and practices. Moral pluralism characterizes ordinary life. No one ethnography can do justice to all these social spaces, and I have not tried to do so here. I primarily focus on interrelationships among four of them: home, clinic, church, and "street." Although obviously this does not yield a complete picture of the moral repertoire that family members draw upon, it suggests a great deal about its complicated character.
One primary aim of this book is to highlight just how morally complex and uncertain ordinary life can be. It is deeply and confusingly interlaced with matters that seem beyond control and others we might be able to influence. It is a shifting admixture of possibility and necessity. How is it, Marx asked paradoxically, that we make history and also that history makes us? This confusion is of immense moral significance to the parents I write about. It has also been of grave concern to moral philosophers, phenomenologists, and, increasingly, anthropologists in the emerging anthropology of morality. (I take this up in greater theoretical detail in the following chapter.)
To think about this feature of everyday life ethnographically, I focus upon events, some large and dramatic, others small and almost invisible. Events, as Jackson has noted, allow us to investigate the "relationship between the forces that act upon us and our capacity for bringing the new into being" (2005: xi). I target events in family life that illustrate with particular clarity the kinds of moral dilemmas and tasks parents face in caring for their children. Each event I describe is in important respects singular and not merely representative of some social category (for example, African American parents with children who have special needs), but the point of dwelling in detail on small moments in small places is not to undertake a tiresome documentation of particularities. Rather, my purpose is to elaborate singular moments precisely in order to speak to moral experiences that have a broad-even existential-significance in illuminating the human plight of caring in the midst of suffering. Attending to singular events allows us to consider how life as lived comprises not only what "actually happened" (what phenomenologists call life's "facticity") but also what might have happened as well as what it portends for what might still happen, life's possibility.
First Person Virtue Ethics
In asking how we can understand the ethical dilemmas and experiences of parents like Tanya, I open an intellectual discussion that is old in philosophy and more recent in anthropology where it is tied to an emerging anthropology of morality. My contribution to this conversation is to outline a first person virtue ethics that draws inspiration from two philosophical quarters, phenomenology and especially the twentieth-century revival of virtue ethics (sometimes called neo-Aristotelian ethics) in moral philosophy. There are a number of key features of this first person ethics that I elaborate throughout the book. Already Tanya's situation, so briefly described, suggests some of them; I begin to sketch these in what follows. My debt to both phenomenology and philosophical virtue ethics will quickly become apparent.
The Good Life
Most centrally, Tanya's situation speaks to her commitment to try to create a good life and what a struggle that can be. It is not only challenging to achieve but difficult to ascertain. No general moral law or rule can address the complexity of her task of discernment because it is utterly embedded within the particularities of her life situation. It is morally demanding because Tanya doesn't just want her son to be physically safe; she wants him to thrive-she wants to create a good and happy life for him. Her concern reflects a basic tenet of virtue ethics. The good life for humans is not merely about surviving but concerns flourishing, Aristotle argued. This notion is sometimes translated as "happiness," but problematically so because it cannot be equated with a mere subjective feeling of pleasure or contentment. Rather, happiness or human flourishing is better understood as something like leading a "life worth living" or a "good life." Moral thriving depends upon the cultivation of wisdom that will allow an agent to discern what is worthy to pursue in her life amid various circumstances.
By foregrounding the importance of moral discernment or judgment, I introduce a deliberative and even reflectively critical component into moral life. Universal rules and calculations cannot replace this activity of discernment. Judgment, in this Aristotelian sense, cannot be reduced to a single choice or an act of will. It is bound up with character and with practices that both express and help in the cultivation of character. But this is not an exercise of judgment or free will on the part of an autonomous moral agent. Virtue ethics inspired by Aristotle is communal. The good life is presumed to be lived in and with community and directed to ideals that encompass collective goods. Intersubjectively held ideals of worthiness are not reducible to mere individual preferences or hedonistic desires.
One of the most significant legacies of the neo-Aristotelian revival is the presumption that human existence concerns process-the "being" of human life is not a set of qualities but rather processes of becoming, that is, its potentiality and its possibilities (Cavell 2004). In ethical terms, cultivating virtue is part of this process of becoming, and it is realized in and through activities. Aristotle regarded praxis as directed, most important, to the human cultivation of a good life. This is very much a good life that is acted. As such, it is full of frailty and uncertainty, features of everyday life that many neo-Aristotelians have emphasized much more than Aristotle would have likely acknowledged. For classical Greece, "to act in its general sense," Arendt points out, "means to take an initiative, to begin . . . to set something into motion" (1958:177). For Aristotle, this beginning was intimately tied to a "sense of an ending" because an action is always tied to a telos, "that-for-the-sake-of-which" (Aristotle 1970; Knight 2007:10). But in moral matters, the Aristotelian telos cannot be reduced to a mere goal in the manner of means-ends relationship. Virtuous action is also an end in itself; the process is part of, expresses, so to speak, the telos.
Anthropology has a crucial contribution to make to this ancient philosophical portrayal of human flourishing. It can offer ethnographically grounded depictions of struggles for the good life as contextualized within a variety of different communally shaped ideals of the virtues and the good. An ethnographic focus on how people attempt to realize lives they consider morally worthy, even in the most blighted and unpromising circumstances, has something to contribute to anthropology. It calls attention to the way people consider and evaluate their lives in light of notions of what is ethically good or right. They may fall short, and may be seen by others as falling short, but this does not obviate the presence of such considerations. As Laidlaw puts it: "The claim on which the anthropology of ethics rests is not an evaluative claim that people are good: it is a descriptive claim that they are evaluative" (2014:3. See also Fassin 2008). Such on-going ethical evaluations speak to basic human questions concerning "how we should live and what kind of person we want to be" (Lambek 2008: 134). Attention to "the good" or the ethical, understood in this sense, promises to enrich our accounts of action by moving us away from accounts that reduce practical reasoning to an instrumental calculation about how to realize culturally valued ends (Mhyre 1999).
In a provocative essay, Joel Robbins calls for an "anthropology of the good" that has some resonance with earlier anthropological ideals of cultural comparison. The proposal of Robbins and others speaks very closely to the ambitions of this book. Although a focus on the good life and moral striving may seem to promote a naïve unwillingness to recognize the violence that characterizes so much human interaction or the human propensity for evil, this misunderstands what is entailed in such a project. I quote Robbins at some length because of his valuable framing of this enterprise:
To study the good as anthropologists, we need to be attentive to the way people orientate to and act in a world that outstrips the one most concretely present to them, and . . . avoid dismissing their ideals as unimportant or, worse, as bad-faith alibis for the worlds they actually create. It is not that imaginings of the good cannot be sometimes set aside in practice or put to use in ideological projects that support the continued existence of structures of violence and suffering, but if we assume that ideals always and only get either ignored or deployed in nefarious ways, then the anthropology of the good can never get off the ground. (2013:457)
The point here is not that people are necessarily motivated to be good (rather than, say, malicious or cruel) or that they are never misled by violent or callous ideologies. Rather, the cultural point is that moral striving seems to matter a great deal to people in all sorts of societies. What constitutes the good life may vary widely from society to society, but it is difficult to imagine any community where this does not matter or where, if it has ceased to be important, this does not seem problematic for its members. In fact, what may emerge from a focus on moral striving is not that people manage to live happy and flourishing lives but that they are often plagued by the threat of moral tragedy. The tragic runs through this book as it runs through the lives I write about. How tragedy is created and especially how it is faced-this constitutes one central thread that ties together the stories in the chapters that follow.
The Good Life from a First Person Perspective
What does a first person perspective reveal about moral striving and the good life? Put differently, why is this a first person topic? Tanya's situation again illustrates. Her aspirations for a good life are not something that she simply knows about in a third person sort of way-as moral truths just out there in the world. Rather, they make demands upon her. And, conversely, these commitments and projects give her a "self." The soccer game presents itself to Tanya in a particular kind of way, one informed by her engagements with the world. Her ethical question (Should she let her son play or not?) confronts her not as a universal problem to which an objective normative answer is demanded but rather as an intimately personal one, bound up with her ongoing commitment to her son, her husband, and her efforts to create a good family life-these familial commitments are essential life projects for her. When Williams (1981) speaks of "ground projects," he offers a compelling picture of this mutually constitutive relationship between the self and one's moral projects. Ground projects refer to the kinds of commitments that people find so deep to who they are that they might not care to go on with their lives without them, or would not know themselves if they no longer had them. They include deeply cherished and self-defining ideals, activities, and personal associations.
Put another way, Tanya does not perceive her son's involvement in soccer from a universalizing third person perspective, as one might imagine a health researcher doing. She does not, for example, ponder the statistical probabilities of health and psychological outcomes of children who use wheelchairs playing rough sports. Rather, she asks from "inside," as an engaged actor who finds herself embedded within a particular social and interpersonal situation, a situation in which the results of her actions are deeply consequential for her and those she cares about. Her stance of "care" is a manifestation of something very basic to human experience. To be human is to care about who we are, what we do, what happens to us. Existence just is care, Heidegger said. It is this feature of our existence that makes it impossible to adequately characterize humans without adopting a first person starting point. We simply are not the sort of beings who can be summed up by the categories into which we can be placed or the properties we have, in a third person sort of way. Rather, we have a first person orientation to them, we respond to the categories that "name" us and the social practices we participate in. This first person experience is an inextricable aspect of what makes these categories "real." Phenomenology underscores the way that reality presents itself to us as something "out there" only through our own engagement with it.
Phenomenologists have noted that for Aristotle this quality of "givenness" of experiential phenomena holds true not only for our practical engagements but even for theoretical knowledge. Although theoretical knowledge that humans develop "extend[s] beyond the domain of human concerns," it is grounded in human capabilities for experiencing the world (Baracchi 2008:2). The general point here is that we are not only embedded in social practices that existed before we came along, we respond to those practices through a stance of commitment-they matter to us, they speak to us and make demands on us. It is this mattering, or things being "at stake" as Kleinman (2006) has often put it, that gives them their first person character. (Notably, such a stance can include a range of responses, including being alienated from projects in which we find ourselves embedded.)
Acknowledging our responsivity vis-à-vis the world, or put differently, the way that the world and our response to it are inextricably entangled, challenges third person accounts of persons (Wentzer in press). We are, as Charles Taylor has said, "self-interpreting animals." This claim presupposes a certain understanding of what it means to have a self at all. A self is "identified with the very first personal givenness of the experiential phenomena. . . . To be conscious of oneself, consequently, is not to capture a pure self that exists in separation from the stream of consciousness, but rather entails just being conscious of an experience in its first personal mode of givenness; it is a question of having first personal access to one's own experiential life" (Zahavi 2005:106). This is not to suggest that our experiences are in any simple sense clearly available to us or give us an unquestioned understanding of what presents itself. It is a commonplace truth that we may wonder if what our senses have told us is, in fact, the case. What's more, Lear comments, we have what he calls an "ethical fantasy life," an "inchoate sense that there is a remainder to life, something that is not captured in life as it is so far experienced" (2000:163, cited in Lambek 2008:142).
This experiential givenness, in all its shadowy complexity, can be contrasted with a "third person perspective" that begins with categories themselves. These serve as the primary unit of analysis and provide the focal point for explanatory attention. In Heidegger's phenomenology, third person ontologies are explicitly contested. Within third person positions, Wentzer (articulating Heidegger's challenge) states, "Things ontologically classified by categorical distinctions are what they are according to their essence or species, or rather, according to their purposefulness and function in practical dealings . . ." (Wentzer 2012:311). But this mode of characterization is not sufficient for humans because it violates our own basic human self-experience. We do not experience ourselves, ontologically, merely as a type of being, a member of a species. We are not simply determined by these categories, properties, and practices but also in orienting to them and experiencing our lives in light of them, we are capable of putting them into question.
It becomes clear that whatever a first person perspective might mean, it extends far beyond a term designating some individual person's inner life of experience. In fact, what is challenged is this very split between subjective and objective. The phenomenological tradition involves the strong claim that objectivity itself is but one attitude within the range of necessarily engaged and first person ways in which we are enmeshed with the world. Michael Jackson (2005) speaks of this enmeshment as a kind of fusion, referring not only to our social relationships with others but also to the physical environments we inhabit, stressing the active, embodied nature of this engagement. Objective or third person descriptions merely offer one way to represent the world-and ourselves. They suggest one interpretive possibility, a possibility that may have its uses but can also be misleading. Subjectivity, in this extended and philosophical sense, is necessarily the name for our primary relationship to anything "out there," including the ways that reality is apprehended and named by us in the manner of the objective, external world, a world of facts and impersonal objects.
Moral Becoming as Experiment: Moral Laboratories
I suggest what at first take may seem a surprising trope for illuminating a first person ethics by considering social spaces as potential moral laboratories. Tanya's situation also illustrates that moral efforts at discerning a momentary best good are not simply matters of personal introspection and reflection. They are-very often-moments of action that call for the transformation of social and physical spaces. Soccer is not the same game with a wheelchair and a medically fragile child as part of it; the field, the rules of the sport, all of these are subtly reinvented by the players in accommodation of this nonstandard scene of action. Parks, clinic waiting rooms, soccer fields, as we will see, all can become the unlikely grounds for moral experimentation and the creation of transformative experiences. These emergent and fleeting moral laboratories provide vantage points on familiar or prior ways of seeing, acting, believing that are actively brought into question. They are also experiments in hope and possibility. They suggest possible futures even while taking place in some all-too-real, and often quite ordinary, present. The actions themselves may seem mundane enough, but they may also function in this experimental way, as actions within possible narratives of transformation, moments in possible lives.
I have chosen this trope of the laboratory precisely to emphasize that these are 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. These are not obvious laboratories; nor are they obvious spaces for moral reflection, moral practice, and moral deliberation. And yet, each serves in this way. It took me a long time to notice the way such spaces were created by families, by children, sometimes by clinicians as well. It is not always apparent that anything of significance is going on, or that there is a kind of moral crisis or dilemma that is being addressed, especially in children's playful moments. I have come to notice the weight of such spaces only over a long acquaintance with the people I write about here.
Although throughout this book I frequently consider moral laboratories and moral reflections as related to clinical diagnoses, medical problems, and health care, any clinical window into the suffering of these families reveals little about their moral dilemmas or hopes. Hope as dependent upon the dream of a clinical cure or rescue is perhaps not beside the point, but it is certainly a small part of the point. I had no idea when the study began that I would find myself in geographical-not to mention imaginative and moral-spaces that were such a distance from the way that medical problems were framed by health professionals. Nor did I realize, when our study began, how caught up I would become in the family and parent hopes and dilemmas that might seem irrelevant to anything medical but were, in fact, of the essence in shaping how children-even those with severe disabilities-fared.
At first glance, a laboratory does not seem a very auspicious metaphor to handle this first person portrait of moral becoming. After all, the lab is a quintessential scene of modernity and postmodernity, a cultural imaginary that includes not only lab rats, test tubes, and white-coated scientists, but also the "onco-mouse," the "ibf stem cell," and all sorts of other dazzling and unprecedented creatures. It has often served as both trope and exemplar for systems frameworks (like Actor Network Theory) that emphasize the interrelatedness of human and nonhuman actors (such as computers) in producing effects in the world. This is a very far cry from first person framework I propose. The laboratory I have in mind, a moral laboratory, is a different kind of imaginative space. It is a metaphorical realm in which experiments are conducted in all kinds of places and where participants are neither mere objects of study nor entities in some cyborgic system but rather researchers or experimenters of their own lives.
This is a scene of action in which the "new" is inaugurated, where new experiences are created. Notably, one of the primary definitions of experience is "experiment" (Oxford English Dictionary); it is this relationship between experience and experiment, the experimental nature of experience itself, that the laboratory trope highlights. In this moral laboratory, participants are not only working with the odds but also, in important ways, against them. The possible is pitted against the predictable. This is a laboratory of unique human actions, a space for the production of beginnings, which turn out to be miracles of a sort. We can get a sense of this moral scene in Arendt's description of the inaugural moment when an "I," a moral self, emerges. With action, she argues, humans are able to create something new-to begin something unexpected. And in this creation of "the new" they create themselves. "The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty," she writes. "And the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle" (1958:178).
Moral laboratories that produce the possible (as against the probable), that produce, in other words, singular acts that transform material and social space and create moral selves, are marked with a radical uncertainty. We might be able to begin something-against the odds-something new. A soccer game reinvented so that a boy using a wheelchair can play--this, in my view, exemplifies just such a "miracle," a small moment of natality. Soccer is "reborn," albeit locally. But this rebirth holds no guarantees; it offers no predicable future and it brings with it unanticipated risks. As Arendt tells us, any "miracle" and the "rebirth" it provides the doer is precarious from the start. We have little control of where that beginning will go, what the consequences of our initial actions will be, and we must, as we say, "suffer the consequences." "Because the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings," Arendt remarks, "he is never merely a 'doer' but always and at the same time a sufferer. To do and to suffer are like opposite sides of the same coin . . ." (1958:190).
Considering a soccer game as a kind of moral laboratory illuminates how Tanya becomes (reluctantly) willing to experiment with her own ideas of the limits of her son's capabilities and the capabilities of the children and parents around him. This game creates an event that transforms her view of her son and herself. Tanya's dilemma over the soccer game reveals the intricacy of what goes into making a moral judgment within any particular situation-and its vulnerability as well. In the name of one kind of "good" (keeping her child physically safe-no small feat with Andy), she resists her husband's attempts to let him play this rough sport. She judges a very different "best good" than her husband in this context. But she recognizes that in doing so, she must give up another "best good," which is allowing her son to do something highly valued by his father, something that father and son try to share in many different ways (as when Andy "shot hoops" as a younger child).
Tanya deeply appreciates her husband's great involvement in raising their son and his pride in doing so. And yet, in this case, she discerns it too dangerous. She is by no means the master of this social space of soccer; her judgment about the best good depends upon her reading of fellow participants in the game. What can she ask and expect not only of children playing on the field but also of their parents? How far will people be willing to accommodate a boy using a wheelchair? How much ingenuity and compassion can she expect from others? Ultimately, for Tanya, the soccer field becomes a space of hope-of opportunities she had not dreamed possible. It also becomes a space of critique-a reflective examination of her own assumptions and what she could ask of her son, of herself, of the community around her. A soccer field is hardly an obvious space of social experiment, moral critique, or personal transformation. And yet, it emerges as a kind of moral laboratory that is created in the midst of everyday life.
Narrativity and the Temporality of Ethics
Experiences generated in moral laboratories are transformative not only (or even especially) in and of themselves but because they serve as experiments in unfolding lives, giving them a temporal depth that is so integral to any analysis of moral becoming. Tanya's problem of the soccer game is posed to her in time; it belongs to history of commitments and memories but also is anticipatory, intimating hopes and aspirations that travel backward and forward in time, shaping the way any particular moment or event is experienced. Even the past becomes different as the present and future change shape. This is a feature of human experience that phenomenologists refer to as "historicity." What they mean by this is not simply that any particular event (say, a soccer game) or person (say, Tanya) has a history or is born into history. Rather, they are saying something about the temporal features of "experience" itself as it is humanly lived.
The "present" is not experienced as an isolated incident. Nor is it experienced as a next "event" emerging in linear fashion from a past. Rather, the phenomenological claim is that what presents itself to someone for experience is always situated within a temporal arc that encompasses past experiences and prefigures future ones: human time evinces a "three fold present." The scene from the soccer game I initially described was a moment lived by Tanya and her family in a temporal horizon that included not only their individual and familial pasts but also possible futures that were foreshadowed but uncertain. Both past and future potential experiences shape the perceptions and meanings of any particular soccer game.
This phenomenal complexity of time is integral to the conception of a first person self. Aristotle's practical philosophy depends upon some notion of a self that continues through time. Even perception requires the analytic primacy of an individual who has some temporal coherence and continuity, phenomenologists have contended, an individual who experiences over time, as Aristotle also believed. But the Aristotelian presumption of an enduring self has been particularly attractive to Anglo-American moral philosophers reviving virtue ethics. Aristotelian ethics cannot do without a very robust notion of the arc of a life and some kind of biographical integrity. The whole notion of cultivating one's character depends upon it. An individual agent is a historical being, one who endures over time and is imbued with a complex internal life. This is a "thick" self (that is, socially embedded, historically singular, enduring, and emotionally complex) rather than a "thin" or "fractured" one. So, for example, in introducing his notion of "ground projects" Williams calls upon "the basic importance for our thought of the ordinary idea of a self or person which undergoes changes of character, as opposed to an approach which, even if only metaphorically, would dissolve the person, under changes of character, into a series of 'selves'" (1981:5). Such a self is analytically demanded if ethics is concerned with "the cultivation of character, the training of moral emotions, the centrality of intention, motive and the inner life" and if it is directed not merely to "isolated acts of choice, but also, and more importantly, on the whole course of an agent's moral life, its patterns of commitment, conduct, and also passion" (Hursthouse 1999:170).
There is a temporality to our projects of care that leads many scholars (and I am one of them) to insist that there is an inherent narrativity to ethical practice and its self-constituting nature. Commitments and projects have a history, and, in taking them up or responding to them, we become part of a history. Cultivating virtues as part of these commitments and projects belongs to a task of moral becoming, and this, too, implies the narrativity of moral life. It presumes a self that has a strongly marked narrative character. Both phenomenologists and virtue ethicists have elaborated this feature of human temporality in narrative terms; lived time unfolds for us in a plot-like way. A present experience is a kind of middle that emerges from beginnings that continue to be revised and endings that are foreshadowed and prefigured but remain in suspense.
This is in some ways analogous to our experience of reading or hearing a story, a common philosophical parallel. We anticipate what will happen next not only based upon the events that have already happened but upon our sense of the unfolding "whole" of which each story event is a part. This sense of the whole (the "plot") unfolds temporally in our experience of reading or hearing a story-not only future anticipated events but also past events are revised in our imagination in this process. But the analogy between reading a story and living a life takes us only so far because it tends to disguise both the agentive and the moral aspects of lived experience. In "real-life" situations, especially ones that present us with dilemmas that have a certain urgency, this temporal complexity manifests itself to us not only as "readers" of our lives but as doers of them. We are called to respond. And our response has a history, becomes part of a history.
The trope of the quest or journey is often invoked by moral philosophers, suggesting a familiar, ancient, and culturally widespread narrative framing of lived experience as a path of moral becoming, one that has been given special attention within philosophical virtue ethics. It gains narrative specificity as instantiated in American, and more specifically African American, family life. The overarching dramatic narrative of the perilous quest is variously emplotted by the families I write about as heroic battle, domestic comedy, moral tragedy, elegy, and spiritual pilgrimage. These narrative strains, or plotlines, are not mutually exclusive but are lived out and furthered simultaneously. Even plots with a cosmic narrative reach are also deeply domesticated in household routines, squabbles, jokes, and rituals. Such a narrative framing might seem to presume an overly coherent self, a life unfurling with orderly precision. But I suggest something very different: that narrative provides a useful approach for investigating projects of moral becoming riddled by uncertain possibilities and informed by pluralistic moral values, concerns, and communities.
For Tanya, the whole soccer quandary-developing over several years as she and her husband initially debate it and then continuing as soccer games are played and she watches worriedly from the sidelines-is both a difficulty in its own right ("an event," so to speak) and part of a larger unfolding life. It is eventful as a kind of episode in her moral project of becoming a "good mother." But goodness is not a straightforward cumulative achievement. The point here, speaking again phenomenologically, is that being a "good mother" is not a static matter. It does not mean merely inhabiting a fixed category and doing the things that this role normatively prescribes. Cultural norms of "good mothering" can serve as guidelines, but they do not pre-decide for Tanya what good mothering should look like in the variety of circumstances life presents to her.
The vocabulary of "moral becoming" also speaks to the outcomes of Tanya's decisions here. She comes to experience these soccer games as life changing, fundamentally reorienting her understanding of what good mothering (for her at least) entails. Soccer playing prompts a generative shift in her own moral understanding of her project of care. Put narratively, these soccer games instigate a reimagining of the kind of moral story she is in. I speak of this process as a task of narrative re-envisioning, a further elaboration of what I have elsewhere called a "narrative phenomenology" of social practice (Mattingly 2010b). By narrative re-envisioning, I mean the activity of coming to see oneself in a new way, coming to reform one's sense of possibility and reframe one's commitments. But it also includes the task of becoming a kind of person capable of formulating and acting upon commitments that one deems ethical. The idea that one lives a life that is, in some way, one's own and that is a moral project is an indispensable intuition for the parents and families I describe. This narrative work speaks most directly to the moral and not merely to the competent aspect of practical action. Narrative re-envisioning is also very embodied, occurring in and through participation in social worlds.
Narrative re-envisioning extends beyond personal life trajectories and the ground projects that configure them meaningfully. Life trajectories are embedded within larger social and historical horizons that are crucial in shaping personal commitments. MacIntyre contends that what is "at stake" in any particular act is necessarily connected to a narrative picture of the self. This is not an explicitly told story but an interpretive framework that agents draw upon in assessing what actions they ought to take. Actions, especially ones that involve clearly moral assessments, are not undertaken and cannot even be interpreted by others without some interpretation of "longer and longest-term intentions . . . and how the shorter-term intentions are related to the longer." Longer-term intentions speak to a person's sense of self, MacIntyre suggests. In discerning what a person is up to in light of what is at stake, for them, we are referring to their longer-term intentions, which means, as he puts it, "we are involved in writing a narrative history" (1981:193).
Following a somewhat different but complementary line of argument, Charles Taylor puts narrative at the center of moral action by exploring what it is that gives us a self in the first place. He asserts that it is primarily through having things "at stake" that one has a self at all: "We are selves only in that certain issues matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me. . . . We are only selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good" (1989:34). It is impossible to speak of understanding a person, Taylor continues, "in abstraction from his or her self-interpretations," and these self-interpretations concern what is of significance (1989:34). Taylor is particularly eloquent in arguing for a narrative framework that encompasses both the narrative features of a self and also of action. What is moral for us, he argues, speaks to our sense of what is significant, and "significance" is necessarily a moral term because it calls upon this "orientation to the good" (1989:34). The moral is only understandable, he further argues, in terms of "what is of crucial importance to us." But, in a kind of circularity that insists on the interweaving of self-understanding, character, and action, our actions and what is of significance are self-defining features of who we are. He states, "To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand" (1989:27). In a manner that echoes Williams's concept of a ground project, Taylor tells us this framework is so important that if people were without it, they would be "at sea"-they would lose their way in "moral space" (1989:29). Taylor further insists that this orientation makes sense only in light of a narratively understood self: "This sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story." Our self-identity is first and foremost built around morality-orientations to "the good." Iris Murdoch calls us "moral pilgrims," a conceit that speaks to the questlike narrative structure of this moral self that is always in the process of becoming. This narrative sense of self is not an "optional extra," Taylor argues. Drawing on Heidegger's construal of the temporal structure of being, he states, "In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going" (1989:47). We cannot operate without this minimal narrative understanding of our lives.
The robust first person perspective offered here ties who I am to those matters that "have significance for me" (Taylor 1989:34; Williams 1981). But this "me" is historical and social before it is individual. It begins with my induction into a community, or set of communities. As Taylor puts it, "One cannot be a self on one's own." A self is always constructed by reference to some defining communities. This dialogical self depends upon what Taylor calls "'webs of interlocution'" (1989:36). After I have been raised in such communities, I may "innovate"-that is, "develop an original way of understanding myself and human life . . . which is in sharp disagreement with my family and background" (1989:35). But even here, our communities are not left behind. They provide our spaces of conversation. Taylor is trying to create a picture of the moral self that avoids two common notions that are both problematic. He contrasts this dialogical view of how moral selves are created from both individualist understandings of the moral self and a social constructionism that views selves as pre-given by public convention.
Here again, Tanya's situation serves as useful illustration of this social narrativity of projects of self-transformation. For Tanya, soccer stands as a moment that generates a new willingness to battle for her son. It is another moment that confronts her with a demand that she cultivate virtues that will aid in care of her son. One virtue-one might call it courage-is key to her own sense of her transformative journey. Tanya, like many parents in this study, told stories about the misery of learning that compliance to clinical authorities is not the answer to good care or a good life. Tanya learned to demand better investigative care for her child from her own mother. Tanya's mother was a nurse. (I quote here from a passage in the Paradox of Hope.)
A few months after Tanya's first child was born, her mother suspected that he was not developing properly. She became furious that Tanya's pediatrician (who was near retirement) was missing obvious cues of serious cognitive delay. She tried to get Tanya to confront him. Tanya did not want to. Her mother asked her: "Who is this old man? Is he asking you this? Is he asking you that?" When her mother confronted her, she "would get upset with her." She remembers their arguments. "They know what they're doing", she would tell her mother. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" But her mother persisted and finally, when her son was four months old, they went to see the pediatrician together. This is how Tanya described their encounter:
He said [to her mother], "Oh granny, he's a preemie and this is something they go through." He was just like, "Oh, they take longer to do things, and you just gotta relax." And she says, "Listen, I'm a nurse and I've dealt with people like you. Sometimes you gotta just pay attention to the signs. And I don't know if you're stupid or if you're smart, but I know one thing. You're going to pay attention to this baby because I'm going to find the best lawyer that I can find or take my daughter out of this pediatrician's office." And I'm sitting there in shock that she's talking to him this way. And then he calmed down and said, "I'm sorry, I apologize. You're right. We'll insist that he goes to a specialist and make sure there's no harm, because he's not tracking. You're right."
The pediatrician finally made referrals to specialists. And this is how Tanya ended up getting a diagnosis of cerebral palsy for her son. (Mattingly 2010b:61-62)
When Tanya's mother confronts her physician, who finally refers her four-month-old infant to a specialist and she discovers he has cerebral palsy, this is not merely a clinical matter. Tanya tells her story as part of a narration of how she had to become transformed herself to be a good mother to her severely disabled child. She must "find strength" not just to bear the difficulties of raising a medically fragile child but also to learn how to battle physicians when necessary.
Tanya has fought many battles over the years not only for her child but also for other children with special needs. She lives in South Central Los Angeles, a low-income community where services are notoriously inadequate. Through a great deal of strategic maneuvering, she was able to move her son into an elite magnet school in the Los Angeles suburbs where she joined a group of wealthy parents developing a new special education program. But this did not solve her problem as she had hoped. Despite the resources of this rich, predominantly white community, she still could not get her son the kind of education she believed he deserved. "School," she says with a sigh. "I'm so disillusioned by it all." When she "drops in on occasion" to see what is going on in her son's classroom, what she sees is "day care." "The special ed. kids sit in the room and look at the walls," she complains. "You're like, where's the curriculum? Where's the structure for these kids?"
Despite all of her efforts and efforts of other parents, she has been in continual and discouraging strife with the principal and other teachers of regular education classes.
We fight ten times over in this school to make ourselves noticed that we want to be a part [of the school]. We're parents that contribute and do what we can, but we're not regarded or respected. Only when they need to show, "Oh we have that handicap room over there. Can you give us a grant? Because we're really a great school." But when making us a part of it, they don't want to regard us since that might make some people feel uncomfortable. There's been certain teachers sayin' "We don't want the kindergarteners [with them]. They might scare the kindergarteners. We don't want them to go with us on field trips or go to the auditorium and stuff." And I just-I don't know. I can't get mad. It's like how many times can you cry? How many times can you get mad? But what can you do?
The ethical here is intimately intertwined with the political, a point presumed by Aristotle that continues to be emphasized by many moral philosophers and anthropologists. By noting this connection, I mean to emphasize the importance of the community, including the civic sphere, as intertwined with personal and familial projects of care. While this may include, as it increasingly does for Tanya, an advocacy role that challenges institutional structures in the name of justice, this need not be the case. It would be far too restrictive to equate the concept of moral agency with political activism. For Tanya, however, her commitments have brought her into increasingly public arenas. Her journey has meant re-envisioning her own subject position in an explicitly political way even as she has become exhausted by the futility of many of her efforts: "I'm just tired. I'm tired of being an adversary of the school system. I'm ready to sit in front of these congressmen and say, you know, 'Walk a year in my shoes and then sit there and tell me that you can make laws like this.'" A confrontation she has taken on with special vehemence concerns inclusion rights for children with special needs. What has been especially frustrating is that she has also tried to help the school as a whole, believing that by doing so the administration would, as they had promised, include the special needs children in schoolwide activities like field trips or allow them out on the playground with others. "We were promised inclusion. I was a mom fighting. I was working my butt off, volunteering, doing fundraisers, being a part of the silent auction."
Tanya situates herself within a much broader historical narrative of populist social justice movements, the black civil rights movement in particular. She is not alone in this; many parents in our study linked their battles with clinicians, school districts, and the like to civil rights. However, she has been especially explicit in seeing her efforts not only as a personal battle but as part of a needed "revolution." She remarked once, her voice passionate with resolve: "It's what started things like the Civil Rights movement. It's what started things like, I don't know (she gives a small laugh) how revolutions start. This has got to stop. This attitude that these kids can't learn (she hits the table for emphasis) or these kids can't be treated with respect or regard." She may laugh self-consciously when she suggests that her efforts could help start a "revolution," but her ongoing efforts show how serious she is.
We can also see how intertwined the experience of suffering is with strivings and imaginings for a good life at a collective level. Although the kind of moral efforts I describe here have a distinctively American cast and are rooted in an African American history, they speak to a phenomenon common in a wide range of societies where suffering itself can serve as a cultural resource for moral striving and growth. So, for example, the Yapese, as described by Throop (2010b), make an important distinction between "mere suffering"-pain that happens to an individual that seems to have no moral purpose-and "suffering for," a highly valued cultural virtue in which one learns to endure pain with patience and stoicism because it is connected to one's contributions to the greater good of one's community.
Tanya's trajectory of moral becoming and social transformation might sound like a story of moral progress. Sometimes Tanya sees it this way. But its tragic dimensions are here too. Again and again she has revealed how her re-envisioned commitments and the concomitant political enlargement of her ground project of care have created new moral vulnerabilities. She is always exhausted and often defeated. She wonders if she has sacrificed too much, putting her family life in jeopardy by the political commitments she has taken up with such fervor.
The Everyday and Its Subversive Resources: Critiquing the Morally Normative
I have begun to suggest a portrait of moral transformation and the moral striving surrounding it that is at once experimental, even perilous, traversing private and public life while also deeply embedded in the routines of everyday care. Although many anthropologists have sought to distinguish ordinary action and its norm-governed morality from something that could properly be called a deliberative ethical moment, this is not the direction that I take. Instead, I foreground the ordinary as a prime site of moral work. The type of transformation I describe is not something that occurs apart from everyday action in a moment of moral crisis but is accomplished in the midst of the everyday as the normative becomes subject to experiment and problematization. I link experiment and narrative re-envisioning to moral transformation in a specific sense. Obviously, on the one hand, transformation is inevitable in our lives. Our biology dictates this. So, too, does our social community. We are reassigned subject positions based upon our passages through life, upon our changing ages, our marriages, our children, our physical declines, and the like. On the other hand, the very act of carrying out ground projects (like caring for one's children) may involve the transformation of understandings of these projects and positions, conscious effortful tasks of moral becoming that involve experiments in social and material spaces as well as personal selves. It is transformation of this sort I have in mind.
I suggest that the moral ordinary can be more morally subversive than many scholars have presumed. I believe it is important to explore the moral ordinary as a resource for critique and transformation as connected to a "we" and an "I." Perhaps, too, there are resources that everyday persons sometimes draw upon to discover contingency in what seemed necessary or to experiment with moral possibilities that transgress or expand their moral universes. So, too, the contingencies of the ordinary can present resources for moral creativity and experimentation. I pay particular attention to the workings of an indigenous hermeneutics of critique even for those who must live with so few resources and so little social capital.
Throughout the book, I consider several primary resources for transformation and critique. These speak both to the first person efforts of an "I" and a "we" but also to the cultural resources and conditions that they draw upon. These are taken up and elaborated: (1) the capacity of people to introduce scenic violations in social spaces that experiment with the social and moral ordinary; (2) the way projects of moral becoming may encourage people to create multiple and even rival future selves; (3) the first person capability of taking a third-person perspective on oneself in order to subject those very third-person categories and norms to evaluation and critique; (4) the way that moral norms can generate incommensurable goods that produce situations of moral tragedy and demand a critique of those norms; (5) the presence of multiple and even rival moral schemes within a social community; (6) the resources even within what might seem like hegemonic practices and discourse for critique, modification, and sometimes subversion.
Introducing a first person account of moral becoming within the domains of everyday life provides a way to focus on the structural conditions that produce morality as lived experience. It also offers an avenue for considering the cultural categories and moral norms that so powerfully shape it. If one avoids both structural determinism and a dualistic account of moral life that pitches an unreflective everyday existence against the rare transgressive or deliberative ethical moment, one can begin to uncover how the cultural provides resources for reflection, critique, and transformation-even, perhaps, revolution. To recognize the mysteries of the everyday one must look with detailed care at how social conditions become dialectical for people living with them. It takes a close gaze to notice the way small experiments undertaken to address various moral troubles can sometimes spark critiques of the normative as well as efforts to transform the conditions of existence. Tragedy becomes visible too, even as life's possibilities are exposed. Hope and despair, moral aspiration and moral failure-these are close travel companions.
I have chosen this trope of the laboratory to emphasize that as part of the moral work African American parents undertake, everyday spaces can become 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, but also sometimes challenge of the social and moral categories in which it is placed. This includes not only stigmatized categories but also highly idealized ones like the "Superstrong Black Mother." Looking at the experimental features of everyday moral life or efforts at transformation does not yield an optimistic picture. But it does allow us to take a dialectical and even paradoxical formulation of ethical and political life seriously. I focus on "making history" (with a small h) projects that arise not because people have some grand ambitions to change the world or a political cheeriness about their capabilities but because of what they often perceive as an unwanted necessity-propelled by the sheer suffering and moral trouble that arises in their tasks to care for their children they find themselves in projects of moral and political transformation.
A Philosophical Anthropology of Moral Possibility
In his fascinating book, Radical Hope, the philosopher Jonathan Lear defines philosophical anthropology in a manner that holds promise for anthropology. He considers an anthropologically informed case concerning Plenty Coups, the "last great chief of the Crow nation" (2006:1). Following the physical and cultural devastation after the buffalo disappeared and the Crow were confined to a reservation, Plenty Coups declares to the white man interviewing him that there are no more stories to tell. After this time, Plenty Coups states, "Nothing happened" to the Crow. Lear ponders this puzzling statement: How can it be that "nothing happened" when the Crow continued to exist? Lear puzzles in a manner he believes quite different from the way anthropologists would. As he puts it, "Unlike an anthropological study, I am not primarily concerned with what actually happened to the Crow tribe or any other tribe. I am concerned rather with the field of possibilities in which all human endeavors gain meaning . . ." (2006:7, italics added). He elaborates further. "A philosophical inquiry may rely on historical and anthropological accounts . . . but ultimately it wants to know not about actuality but about possibility" (2006:9). He ties this investigation to the problem of ethics-the question of how we ought to live within certain possible circumstances.
Without detracting from the considerable resources philosophy brings to this question, I suggest that anthropologists work on the problem not only of actualities but also of possibilities and their ethical implications. Furthermore-and this is one of Lear's most important points-this is not a question for academics alone. It is also one posed by people-or we might better say posed to people-by the circumstances of their lives. The reason this is a concern for anthropologists is because "actuality" consists not simply of things that happen but also of things that might happen (in phenomenological terms, anticipatory or prospective experience) as well as things that might have happened-a history not only of facts but also of past possibilities and roads not taken.
Put in terms of morality, a philosophical task for anthropologists is to consider how cultural conditions pose not only conditions of normative actuality-guiding what can "actually happen"-but also conditions of possibility governing what might happen. Carrithers suggests that perhaps anthropological knowledge is "not a knowledge of structures alone but also of spacious possibilities and of unintended consequences that crowd closely around certainty" (2005:434). To investigate these "spacious possibilities" that "crowd closely around certainty," we might ask, What are the subjunctive potentialities available in certain cultural and structural circumstances? How do culturally normative practices not only reproduce themselves but also contain within them resources for their own challenge? How might they provide provocations for what Arendt calls "natality"-moral striving in which people try to bring something new (even statistically improbable) into being? How is this potentiality bound up with suffering, even moral tragedy? Although Lear-and many anthropologists-consider this under situations of extraordinary moral threat or crisis, I continue to ponder such questions in light of a perilous moral ordinary.
The book divides into three parts. Part I ("First Person Virtue Ethics") comprises this chapter and the following one. These provide the overall framing argument. Part II ("Moral Becoming and the Everyday") comprises chapters 3 through 6. It is especially focused on how character is cultivated as part of on-going experiments in everyday life. Part III ("Moral Pluralism as Cultural Possibility") consists of chapters 7 through 9. It most directly tackles the cultural and political dimensions of my argument. Chapters 7 and 8, in particular, consider intersections between the different moral terrains people traverse, looking at conflicting moralities as resources for cultural critique and attempts at social transformation.
Chapter 2 further elaborates what is entailed in a first person version of virtue ethics in an explicitly debating style. I argue that it is important to look at the contrasts between a first person virtue ethics and a third person discursive one inspired especially by Foucault. I examine ways that these positions challenge rather than support one another despite their many areas of overlap. I particularly highlight conceptual divides regarding the status of the "self." Although I pay special attention to anthropological voices, the question raised-why we need a first person version of virtue ethics-speaks to a much broader interdisciplinary conversation. This chapter merits a "Dear Reader" comment. Because it goes into considerable detail about these two traditions, it will be of far greater interest to some readers than to others. For the latter, it may be safely skipped.
Chapters 3 and 4center upon family life. I explore everyday routines as home experiments, introducing an extended household presided over by Delores (the grandmother matriarch) but also by two of her adult daughters, Marcy and Sasha, and their six children. Following this family through several key events, I ask what is at stake, conceptually, in speaking of the "everyday" locating ethics within the moral ordinary. These chapters explore how routines are revised or invented in response to the changing circumstances of the family's life. Chapter 4 documents how a household accident challenges the harmony of the family. In response to this accident, Sasha undergoes an arduous project of becoming a new kind of mother and trying to inhabit a new kind of family. I elaborate the notion of narrative re-envisioning introduced in the first chapter and examine it as a form of social and dialogical reflection and action. As part of this, Sasha experiments with new ways for her son to inhabit the household. These experiments are challenged by Delores, who initiates others. As compared to the kind of experimentation I write about in other chapters, these experiments are very small scale and may appear inconsequential. However, when embedded within the context of the family journey and its efforts to repair the moral damage that the accident caused, the experimental qualities of the most quotidian practices become visible.
Chapter 5 opens with an ordinary clinical scene of a child with a severe chronic illness. Itinvolves an ongoing debate between a mother and clinicians, especially her daughter's primary physician, a hematologist who is treating her daughter for sickle cell anemia. This mother, clinically informed and passionately involved in her child's care, strenuously advocates for a highly risky and experimental bone marrow transplant procedure that the hematologist deems far too medically unsafe. Why is the mother so ready to pursue something so dangerous? What is at stake for her, morally speaking? I explore how her day-to-day challenges of cultivating the maternal virtues necessary to fulfill one best good for her daughter place her in a situation of moral incommensurability. She finds herself inextricably caught in a moral tragedy.
Chapter 6focuses on the experimental nature of action in a way that provides a place to retheorize the relationship between narrative and self-becoming. I suggest that rather than considering the self as both linear and coherent, it is better considered as subjunctive. We are selves "in suspense" (Mattingly 2009, 2010a). I consider the situation of Andrena and her daughter Belinda, who is critically ill with cancer. The problem for Andrena is not merely that her four-year-old girl may die (as clinicians predict likely) but that Andrena will either lose hope while her daughter is still alive or, if her daughter dies, she will be so grief stricken that she will not be able to go on living. This chapter, more than any of the others, shows how moral experimentation can happen in all kinds of places. Such events as a visit to a neighboring mother, a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese, a visit to a new school-all these moments and spaces are mobilized in a kind of "what if?" experiment in which Andrena actively cultivates two incommensurable future stories at the same time-one where her daughter dies, one where she lives. This experimental stance allows her to practice the virtues of a mother who does not give up hope for her child while also cultivating the strength that will be needed if she must bear the pain of her daughter's death. Her efforts not only concern her ability to care for her child in what she deems the "best good" way, but also to try to care for her future self, to guard against the temptation of suicide.
Chapter 7asks the primary question that motivates chapters 7 and 8: How can the moral ordinary provide a place to critique and contest it? This chapter takes us into a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where parents watch over their critically ill newborn. I look at the NICU as a moral laboratory and a setting for multiple and competing moral imaginaries. In the situation I examine, the parents are locked in a battle with clinicians over the experimental procedures they ask to be carried out on behalf of their baby. This is a familiar battle-the topic of many a medical ethics case. However, it gains moral depth when these clinical experiments are embedded within the parents' attempts to transform their family and themselves, to cultivate the kinds of virtues that make them good parents to all their children. This chapter also investigates how one authoritative moral discourse (a spiritual one) is pitted against another (a biomedical one).
In chapter 8,I return yet again to Delores's extended household. Here, many competing moral spaces and discourses are brought to bear upon one another: the street, the church, and the home. When one of Delores's grandchildren is murdered outside his house, this sparks conversations by family members and others, both on the street and in the church at the funeral, about who is responsible for his death and what kinds of moral transformation his death seems to demand. Here, moral laboratories also become political laboratories where authoritative moral discourses and practices are directly critiqued and challenged. The church figures in a particularly central way as confessional speech, a powerful normative religious discourse, is used to challenge the church's authority.
Chapter 9, the final chapter, revisits the theoretical discussions first announced in the initial chapters and developed ethnographically throughout the book. As befits a first person virtue ethics, I return to the families who have been my primary protagonists as I offer a series of epilogues or "end notes." I conclude by recounting one last funeral to ask how tragedy, critique, and moral possibility can be so intimately linked and why this ethically matters.