Moral deliberation and the agentive self in Laidlaw’s ethics

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Cheryl Mattingly. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.030


Moral deliberation and the agentive self in Laidlaw’s ethics

Cheryl MATTINGLY, University of Southern California/Aarhus University

Comment on LAIDLAW, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James Laidlaw opens his marvelously provocative book The subject of virtue with a review of dominant notions of morality in anthropology that he takes to be obstacles to the development of an adequate conception of morality. He prefaces this with an important discussion of why ethics has been a neglected topic for the field until recently. He decries the widespread perception that the ethical, as something people can consciously reflect on and deliberate about, is a subjective illusion because the “the real determinants of human behavior are wholly material” (Laidlaw 2014: 3). This belief is congruent with a general feature of social explanation more broadly, namely that it has concerned what Robbins (2013) and Laidlaw (following Bauman) have called the “unfreedom” of social life.

Laidlaw also contests the view that studying the ethical presumes that people are somehow, by nature, good. Like Lambek (2010a, 2010b) and Robbins (2013), he argues that no such claim is entailed. All that is needed is to recognize that the people anthropologists study are being evaluated, and evaluate themselves, 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 evaluative notions. In Laidlaw’s clever phrasing: “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)

If it is true that anthropologists did not sufficiently problematize ethics in the past, things have now changed. For the last decade or more, a number of anthropologists have taken up the question of ethics in explicit fashion, making important contributions to our understanding of ethical conduct in a broad array of societies. One of Laidlaw’s primary contributions to the conversation—in this book—involves identifying a set of troubles in many current proposals. Much of the book is devoted to outlining obstacles, challenging not only positions that are far from his own, but also those that come very close to his proposal. In doing so, he offers distinctive readings of Foucault and MacIntyre—two central philosophical influences in anthropological discussions. Laidlaw’s rhetorical strategy serves as a kind of path-clearing exercise that helps illuminate the distinctiveness of his set of claims about ethics.

Laidlaw takes considerable care to contest some of the discipline’s most eminent scholars and schools of thought. Whether one agrees with all of his positions or not, there can be no question that his thoughtful, sometimes razor-sharp, remonstrances and queries can only help us to think about the ethical dimensions of social life more clearly. Additionally, when he offers his own proposed framework, he does so in wonderfully clarifying prose. Laidlaw’s virtue ethics draws both from a Foucauldian-inspired genealogy of ethics and from the predominantly Anglo tradition of virtue ethics, especially Bernard Williams. He proposes a pedagogical model of ethical formation that draws upon these two intellectual traditions, one that, he believes, solves the problems he raises more satisfactorily than the alternative approaches he critiques.

My paper engages Laidlaw’s arguments in what I hope will be the same spirited, debating style. I am in great sympathy with his critiques and his proposed alternative in many respects. I find his attention to freedom, agency, the cultivation of character, and moral pluralism invaluable. There is considerable overlap between his ethical framework and the “first person virtue ethics” I have been working to develop over the past several years (Mattingly 2012, 2013, 2014, in press a, in press b; Mattingly and Jensen in press). However, I will primarily be contentious here. In what follows, I initially sketch Laidlaw’s primary challenges concerning anthropology’s dominant considerations of morality. (Or ethics. For my purposes, I will use these terms interchangeably except when citing someone who distinguishes them.) In getting a sense of Laidlaw’s positive proposal, it is essential to work through his disputes because one crucial rhetorical strategy he uses to develop his ethical framework is by debating existing alternative positions.

My basic challenge to Laidlaw will be that some of the same critiques he levels against alternative frameworks, especially their reduction of moral agency, could also be made against his proposed pedagogical ethics. I draw upon an ethnographic example taken from my own research to suggest that his proposal only takes us part of the way in understanding how people engage in ethical reflection and deliberation in their everyday engagements and relationships. I agree with so much of what he proposes that my critique should be read not as a dismissal by any stretch. Rather, it is a suggestion, obviously developed from my own perspective and with my ethnographic material in mind, for how he might go a bit further along some of the lines that he outlines.

Laidlaw’s key challenges: Obstacles to progress in developing an adequate conception of morality

Equating the moral with the social

Laidlaw reviews a critique he has made in earlier work, one shared by many anthropologists who have complained about a troublesome Durkheimian legacy in which the moral is simply equated with the social. As Laidlaw puts it, Durkheim’s “corporatist vision” and his “collectivist” depiction of morality effectively “abolished freedom as a significant conceptual element in morality” (2014: 20). The elements of deliberation, reflection, and critique have no substantial role in this social picture.

Moral relativism

Laidlaw also lodges a complaint against the legacy of Boas, because it has often led anthropologists to insist that cultural societies (at least “exotic” ones) are so morally distinct that their moral rules and norms are not only uniform for that local moral world but are valid only within that society. While the advocacy of relativism has often been part of a laudable enterprise of critiquing European or “Anglo-sphere” practices, this concern makes the “relativism” claim incoherent. How could such radically different moral practices bear relevance for “our own” society if worlds were so truly culturally distinct, after all? According to Laidlaw, this espoused relativism has also (rather analogously to Durkheim) removed something like freedom of reflection from the equation, promoting instead a thorough-going acculturation picture of the ethical. In a far more provocative move, he contends that moral relativism has been recast in recent decades within the “anthropology of suffering,” where moral exoticism emerges not from claims concerning the distinctiveness of cultural domains but from graphic descriptions of “circumstantial miseries.” This genre, he writes, “specializes in the minute description of individual experiences of exclusion, violence, illness, and poverty” (2014: 31). Exoticism arises here from the rhetorical strategy of depicting individual sufferers in ways that emphasize the foreignness and unfathomability of their particular plights.

“Us and them” dualisms

Another difficulty for Laidlaw, one which could be understood as a sub-set of his overall challenge to moral relativism, is that anthropologists have frequently proposed radical dichotomies between selves characteristic of the modern West (us) and those belonging to non-Western societies. Such dyadic us/them portrayals (e.g. “dividuals” versus “individuals” or “ego-centric selves” versus “socio-centric selves,” etc.) make it difficult to think about how non-Western others develop a range of practices devoted specifically to the cultivation of the ethical self. Laidlaw believes that Mauss’ legacy is partly to blame. Mauss argued that while all societies have a “sense of physical and spiritual individuality of the self (moi),” this empirical fact lacks anthropological import because the discipline ought to be concerned only with “socially constituted categories of the person (personne)” (2014: 36). The category of the person has a history (specifically a Western one), while the category of the self does not, in Mauss’ view.

Laidlaw finds Mauss’ distinctions and claims highly problematic. His crucial critique paves the way for his own proposal. He argues that there are “moi-oriented moral systems” that are non-Western and have their own histories. Anthropology’s contribution to ethics should be concerned with just such institutionally “organized projects of self-formation” and their histories. Laidlaw cites Buddhism and Jainism as two examples that represent “the site of a decisive step in human thought and practice relating to the self, comparable to that which Mauss identifies, in relation to the person, in Roman law” (2014: 38). Mauss misses this because he associates the individual with the legal self rather than these spiritual practices of self-development that are “I”oriented. Laidlaw’s key concern is to argue not only that these spiritual practices have histories, but also that their histories are of enormous significance: “Forms of life and techniques of self-fashioning have travelled widely and been pervasively influential” (2014: 39).

Problematic understandings of motive and agency in dominant anthropological traditions

Laidlaw’s most original and important critiques concern three influential contemporary positions. Although they are quite distinct from one other, they can be taken together because—in his view—each of them disallows a sufficiently rich understanding of moral agency. He argues that while each appears to promise a conception of agency (which is necessary for an ethics), each fails in its promise. One such framework is practice theory. This has seemed to offer a solution to structural determinism, with practice as a mediating term. However, agency in this paradigm is reduced to the efficacy of an individual’s actions to resist or alter structures. Therefore practice theory “recognizes as ‘agency’ only actions conducive to certain outcomes: those that are structurally significant” (2014: 5). As a result, the motivational scope of human action is insufficiently fleshed out (a problem Sherry Ortner also pointed out in her landmark 1984 essay). Laidlaw cites John Stuart Mill, who famously recognized that political economy is premised on an abstraction—treating human action “only insofar as people act in the pursuit of wealth and it ‘makes entire abstraction of every other passion or motive’” (Laidlaw 2014: 7).

The work of philosophical virtue ethicists has seemed a more promising path, and indeed is one that Laidlaw embraces. However, he finds a second obstacle here. In a word, “MacIntyre.” The pervasive influence of MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, especially as developed by Asad (2003), has resulted in a neglect of the inevitable moral pluralism of people’s lives. As Laidlaw sees it, MacIntyre seems to insist that ethical life can only be coherent if social practices, self-narratives, and institutions are integrated into a single seamless tradition (2014: 63). MacIntyre does not recognize, as Williams does, that “values are intrinsically and perennially plural and conflicts between them are irreducible … and therefore for ethical lives to consist in part at least of balancing conflicting claims and sometimes facing tragic choices is a normal and more or less unavoidable state of affairs” (2014: 167, citing Williams 1981: 72).

Furthermore, Laidlaw continues, in his later works, MacIntyre increasingly replaces critical argument with the authority (religious, specifically) of traditions. The role of internal argument and criticism disappears in his accounts and is replaced by traditional authority. In so doing, MacIntyre moves away from Aristotle, for whom critique and deliberation are central to ethical life. Laidlaw blames MacIntyre’s influence on the “craft guild” model of apprenticeship that has come to dominate many anthropological accounts and for giving us an unthinking account of the virtues which seem to be acquired simply as an effect of belonging to communities of practice. “Habituation,” again, takes over.

The third important intellectual tradition that Laidlaw contests is Actor-Network Theory (ANT). In ANT, proposed by Latour, “‘agency’ is not reserved for human persons, and still less is it used to indicate anything distinctively valuable about them” (2014: 180). Because ANT equates “‘agency’ with the ability to ‘make a difference’ to what goes on—as a function of its place in a network,” theorists are able to claim that objects have agency just as persons do. Laidlaw cogently argues that this diminished conception ignores the fact that judgments about causal agency are also ethical judgments about “attributions of responsibility” (2014: 185).

Laidlaw’s positive program for an ethics of the self

Laidlaw’s model of virtue ethics is essentially pedagogical. To develop it, he relies heavily upon Foucault’s theory of subjectivation. In drawing upon Foucault, Laidlaw carefully distinguishes his interpretation from others that have been broadly influential. Subjectivation, he states, is not a mechanical process in the manner of Althusser’s concept of interpellation. Nor is it a proposal for “subjectivity without a subject,” following Badiou. Laidlaw puts it this way: “Too many renditions of Foucault’s ideas … have given what Veena Das (2007: 59) rightly describes as the misleading impression that ‘the experience of becoming a subject is exhausted by that of subjugation’” (2014: 101).

So, what is the alternative if it does not mean either interpellation or subjectivity without a subject? It involves a focus on “techniques of self-formation.” Laidlaw follows Foucault closely here. These are practices that “permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on – their own bodies, their own souls, their own thoughts, their own conduct – and this in a manner so as to – transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state – of perfection, happiness, purity, supernatural power” (Foucault 1997: 177, 255, cited in Laidlaw 2014: 101). Obviously, processes of subjectivation are based on models a person finds in his culture, ones that are “proposed, suggested, imposed upon him by his culture, his society, his social group” (Foucault 1997: 291), but this, Laidlaw notes, does not make them any less good candidates for an “active, reflective freedom involved in actualizing them.”

Laidlaw also draws upon the notion of moral exemplars for the fashioning of moral selves, arguing that “an important dimension of how people grasp and understand moral values is through their engagement with exemplars” (2014: 87). One advantage of looking at the role of exemplars is that it can help anthropological conceptions of moral life that need not depend upon a “strong model of a shared culture.” Instead we can think of something “more like Carrither’s ‘historical streams,’ with narratives (including those of diverse exemplars) as well as visual images and aesthetic forms and standards also being part of their composition” (2014: 87).

As we have seen from Laidlaw’s critiques of alternative frameworks, his virtue ethics insists upon moral pluralism. One reason he finds it so important to consider “the operation of practical reason and judgment in everyday life” is precisely this pluralism of values and the way that moral lives don’t simply cohere. This empirical fact demands a complex picture of everyday life and the necessity of moral deliberation. While Laidlaw often calls upon Williams to promote this position, his notion of moral pluralism is rather different from Williams’ in some important respects.

Notably, Laidlaw’s pluralistic vision yields a much more fragmented or fractured self than not only MacIntyre’s narrative self but also the self of William’s moral persons who are guided over time by “ground projects.” When Williams 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 integral 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.

When Williams describes this notion of ground projects in Moral luck (1981), he puts his biographical and diachronic moral agents in explicit debate with Parfit, who had famously challenged the idea of the “coherent self” by proposing that we could consider people as living with a succession of distinct moral selves. Williams contests Parfitian successive selves in a brilliant set of dismantling moves. By contrast, Laidlaw’s moral selves are, if not as “successive” or discontinuous as Parfit’s, certainly more fractured than the biographical and narrative selves that not only MacIntyre but also Williams and most virtue ethicists have required. As Laidlaw puts it: “[T]he same person may be part of several different conflicting stories at the same time.… Indeed, we might … suggest that some ethical traditions at least are only livable insofar as they may be apprehended as fragmented narratives whose relation to each other is left somewhat unclear, thus enabling people to shift as best they may between them” (2014: 82). He goes on to say: “The narratives of which these various embodied stances are part and the roles an individual plays in them do not add up to a single overarching and coherent life story for that individual, as MacIntyre’s account requires, but they are nevertheless the components out of which people assemble a religiously informed ethical life” (2014: 83).

Problematizing the pedagogical primal scene

Despite the many brilliant insights that Laidlaw’s framework affords, I do not think he goes as far as he might in solving some of the most central problems he raises, especially concerning agency and deliberation in everyday life. One impediment, on my reading, is that he wants to include a wide range of potential candidates for “ethical subjects,” including collectivities and (this seems to be pending for him) possibly animals and machines. Though this consideration of machines and institutions or other collectivities is not as important to his ethical framework as it is for, say, Faubion (2010, 2011), it still has the unfortunate potential to undermine his crucial claims about moral deliberation that seem to demand a “thick” moral self and a complex range of moral emotions. I won’t try to tackle this issue head on here. Rather, in this paper I focus on another impediment (as I see it), namely Laidlaw’s heavy reliance on Foucault. While Laidlaw blames MacIntyre for an overly habituated concept of ethical self-formation in anthropological accounts such as Asad’s and Mahmood’s, I lay the blame on our Foucauldian legacy, which places such stress on subjectivation as the primary ethical project.

I need to be as clear as possible here. Laidlaw certainly eschews any simple habituation notion of ethical cultivation. Furthermore, I would absolutely concur that what we might call the pedagogical aspects of developing an ethical self are a central part of moral life. However, this emphasis on the “schooling” aspects of ethical cultivation tends to neglect an equally crucial and character-building feature of moral life: its situated character in the particularities of practical action. As Laidlaw himself notes: “[I]nsofar as learning virtue, for Aristotle, consists in acquiring the right habits, it must be understood that habit consists not in the mindless internalization of reflexes or even rules, but instead, as Jonathan Lear put it, ‘a sensitivity as to how to act in various circumstances’ (1988: 166)” (2014: 72). Accounts that primarily emphasize the pedagogical features of ethical formation tend to fall short precisely here. The difficulty is that frameworks stressing subjectivation and pedagogy necessarily place great emphasis on preexisting practices, techniques, and models for living. This vocabulary directs our gaze to the features of moral life that are already in place, the technologies that are available to be mastered, the teachers who are there to mentor. While models, exemplars, and technologies are crucial resources, essential to the formation of an ethical character, so too are the fraught deliberations that attend struggling to live with the uncertainties of particular situations and competing moral demands. Laidlaw’s consideration of moral pluralism underscores this, but I think even more needs to be said.

The “primal scene” I would like to invoke to flesh out my point is not a ped-agogical one but rather one which poses a moral puzzle, or—to use the trope I have been developing—seems to demand a kind of moral experiment as part of judging and acting upon the “best good.” Such a scene foregrounds the complexity of deliberating about a best good in the face of uncertain circumstances and competing demands that life presents. The particularities of context make ongoing demands on us for which there may be no obvious answer. Laidlaw is well aware of this challenge of living of everyday life. When he turns to his own ethnographic study of the Jains (2014: 126–27), in a brief but sensitive depiction of how they experience living their lives amidst competing values and the relational demands of others, he notes that they struggle to balance their spiritual practices with, for example, “looking after the children of a neighbor or family member undertaking a demanding fast, understanding when the young man struggling to get his business established only shows up very briefly to the temple ceremony you’ve sponsored. Much is enabled by such everyday ways of having regard to and recognizing the needs of others [but] … [n]one of this eliminates the conflicts or provides a ready-made or stable equilibrium between them. Life, in this sense, is not a puzzle to which there can be a solution. The essential perplexity will always have to be lived with” (2014: 127).

To my mind, this messy everyday scene, with its “essential perplexity,” its entangled first-person “I’s” and relational first-person “we’s,” is a more promising primal space in which to create an ethics of freedom, agency, and moral deliberation along the stringent lines Laidlaw proposes. To flesh out my claim, I turn to an example from my ethnographic fieldwork among parents raising children with significant chronic illnesses and disabilities. This example and the analysis that follows draw substantially upon material presented in a forthcoming book.1

Moral perplexity and everyday 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 towns across the country. 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. His father and mother stand at the sidelines watching the action.

The boy’s parents, 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 which leaves him not only 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 herself is one of those women determined to fight for her son’s rights to good schooling and she is fierce in her insistence upon standing 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 whom 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 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 games 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 him involved in the local children’s soccer team. While this was a “special needs” soccer team, the children had cognitive disabilities rather than physical ones. Certainly none were in 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 finally prevailed and she let her son go on the field. During one of those games, just as she feared, children accidentally knocked his wheelchair over 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.

Moral deliberation, virtue ethics, and projects 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 child and for themselves in the changing circumstances of everyday life and in the midst of what are often 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 a different sort of person. They are launched 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. Laidlaw’s account certainly has something to offer in considering Tanya’s situation. We could usefully think about this work of care as demanding an activity of subjectivation in Foucault’s sense as parents like Tanya struggle to cultivate virtues to be, for example, a “good enough” mother. And it is evident that 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.

The virtues that Tanya is called upon to cultivate are also, as Laidlaw and others suggest, a pedagogical project in the sense that her moral efforts are at least partly informed by preestablished norms and values she has inherited from the communities in which she has grown up. A crucial ideal, perhaps as impossible to attain as being a perfectly pious Jain, is what Collins (2000) has called “The Superstrong Black Mother.” This is a moral figure around which a whole constellation of virtues have been extolled (and, in the hands of feminists, sometimes critiqued). Virtues center on the primary task of caring for and protecting others, especially one’s children. They include being “self-reliant and resourceful” (Collins 2000: 157), “assertive,” “self-sacrificing” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant 2007), 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: 60). While 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 (hooks 1992, 1994; Blackman 1999; Collins 1999, 2000; Sanders and Bradley 2005; Beauboeuf-Lafontant 2007; Miles 2008; Sharp and Ipsa 2009). 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 (hooks 1992).

In many ways, Tanya embodies the sort of mother who struggles to be just such a Superstrong mother. She holds her own mother up as a moral exemplar of many of the qualities she strives to attain herself. However, as I will try to show, this example of her dilemma over soccer reveals how much more is involved in moral deliberation than the vocabulary surrounding a pedagogy of ethical subjectivation suggests. What is most striking, from the virtue ethics perspective I propose, are the particularities of her dilemma. 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 life for him as far as she can. Although she strives to be a good mother and is guided by norms and exemplars that illustrate this and can provide some assistance, when the soccer issue arises, she is confronted by an ethical problem that is unique. Her ethical question (should she let her son play or not?) confronts her not as a problem to which a predefined normative answer is offered or demanded, but rather as an intimately personal and individual puzzle, 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.

Tanya’s dilemma reveals its particularity in another way. In responding to her difficulty, she creates a new situation for her son, her husband, and a larger social community. She effects a change in the social scene. Here we can see that reflection and deliberation may not simply be about giving reasons but also about transfiguring the scene of action. Tanya’s situation illustrates that moral efforts at discerning a momentary best good are not simply matters of personal introspection and reflection, nor are they confined to a “stepping back” kind of reflection. They may be moments of action that also 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 and the rules of the sport are subtly reinvented by the players in accommodation of this non-standard scene of action. 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 for 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 his 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 in 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.

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 past 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 which was important to Greek antiquity and has been very important to most virtue ethics philosophers. Aristotle’s (1976) practical philosophy depends upon some notion of a self that continues through time (Arendt 1958; Ricoeur 1978, 1981; MacIntyre 1981, 1988, 1990; Taylor 1989; Baracchi 2008). 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 (i.e. socially embedded, historically singular, enduring, and emotionally complex) rather than a “thin” or “fractured” one. 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” (Hursthouse 1999: 170). Ethics is thus concerned not merely with “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.

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 larger temporal moral project of becoming a “good mother.” Norms of “good mothering” can serve as guidelines but they do not predecide 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. Based on part on this experience, she becomes steadily more involved with other parents in fighting for inclusion in ordinary children’s activities—she assumes growing responsibilities as an activist in the Los Angeles County school district.

Tanya’s trajectory of moral becoming and social transformation might sound like a story of moral progress or increased agency. Sometimes Tanya sees it this way. But—and here I agree with Laidlaw—this “practice theory” understanding of agency with its focus on the structural play of power and resistance is far too narrow. It doesn’t tell us enough about the moral pluralisms and dilemmas that Tanya’s life faces her with. There is a morally tragic dimension here too. Again and again, Tanya has spoken about how her reenvisioned 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.


I opened this paper by reviewing Laidlaw’s lucid critiques of ethical theory and his compelling argument for a pedagogical framework that also recognizes the moral pluralism of everyday life. I then issued my own challenge, arguing that an adequate ethics for anthropology needs an additional primal scene, a scene of everyday moral perplexity. It is within such a scene that we can explore how people precipitate efforts to transform not only themselves but also the social and material spaces in which they live. Directing our gaze here can reveal the provisional and even experimental qualities of social action—at least from the first-person perspective of the actors—where outcomes and their moral import can be highly uncertain.

I drew upon my own ethnographic work to make my case, taking an example featured in a forthcoming book (Mattingly in press a) where I consider how moral projects of transformation are connected to ground projects (in Bernard Williams’ [1981] sense) that center on the care of intimate others. In proposing a soccer game to illustrate, I have stressed that moral becoming also depends crucially upon the experience of acting in circumstances that are fraught and uncertain, where it often seems impossible to find any best good that is worth acting upon and stakes are high, but where, nonetheless, action must be taken.

Laidlaw notes early on in The subject of virtue that he is undertaking a wildly ambitious project. It seems rather unfair to respond to the boldness and originality of his proposals by complaining that he should have done more or, at times, thought differently. But if it is the case that spirited debate will help us all to get clearer about what we think, then complaints and counter-offers have their place. For my part, trying to think seriously about Laidlaw’s claims and where I stand in relation to them has proven extremely instructive, helping me to sharpen my own position.


Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aristotle. 1976. The Nichomachean ethics. Translated by J. A. K. Thomson. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the secular. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Baracchi, Claudia. 2008. Aristotle’s ethics as first philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. 2007. “‘You have to show strength’: An exploration of gender, race, and depression.” Gender and society 21 (1): 28–51.

Blackman, Lorraine. 1999. “The UMOJA principle in action: African Americans forging twenty-first-century families.” Journal of African American Studies 4 (1): 53–69.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1999. “The meaning of motherhood in black culture.” In The black family: Essays and studies, edited by Robert Staples, 157–66. New York: Wadsworth.

———. 2000. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and words: Violence and the descent into the ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Faubion, James D. 2010. “From the ethical to the themitical (and back): Groundwork for an anthropology of ethics.” In Ordinary ethics: Anthropology, language, and action, edited by Michael Lambek, 84–103. New York: Fordham University Press.

———. 2011. An anthropology of ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1997. Ethics: Subjectivity, and truth: Essential works of Foucault 1954–1984, Vol. 1. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Translated by Robert J. Hurley. New York: New Press.

hooks, bell 1992. Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.

———. 1994. Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. New York: Routledge.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. 1999. On virtue ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2010a. “Introduction.” In Ordinary ethics: Anthropology, language, and action, edited by Michael Lambek, 1–38. New York: Fordham University Press.

———. 2010b. “Toward an ethics of the act.” In Ordinary ethics: Anthropology, language, and action, edited by Michael Lambek, 39–63. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lear, Jonathan. 1988. Aristotle: The desire to understand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After virtue: A study in moral theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

———. 1988. Whose justice, which rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

———. 1990. Three rival versions of moral inquiry. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2012. “Two virtue ethics and the anthropology of morality.” Anthropology Theory 12 (2): 161–84.

———. 2013. “Moral selves and moral scenes: Narrative experiments in everyday life.” Ethnos 78 (3): 301–27.

———. 2014. “The moral perils of a Superstrong Black Mother.” Ethos 42 (1): 119–38.

———. In press a. Moral laboratories: Family peril and the struggle for a good life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. In press b. “Love’s imperfection: Moral becoming, friendship and family life.” Suomen Antropologi (Finnish Journal of Anthropology). Special issue: The morality of friendship. Guest editors James Throop and Valerio Simoni.

Mattingly, Cheryl and Uffe Juul Jensen. In press. “What can we hope for? An exploration in cosmopolitan philosophical anthropology.” In Anthropology and philosophy: Dialogues on trust and hope, edited by Sune Liisberg, Esther Oluffa Pedersen, and Anne Line Dalsgård. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Miles, Tiya. 2008. “The black mother within.” Black Women, Gender and Families 2 (2): 99–103.

Ortner, Sherry. 1984. “Theory in anthropology since the sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 126 (1): 126–66.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1978. The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An anthropology of his work. Edited by Charles Reagan and David Steward. Boston: Beacon Press.

———. 1981. Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action, and interpretation. Edited by John Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 19: 447–62.

Sanders, Jo-Ann, and Carla Bradley. 2005. “Multiple-lens paradigm: Evaluating African American girls and their development.” Journal of Counseling and Development 83 (3): 292–98.

Sharp, Elizabeth, and Jean Ipsa. 2009. “Inner city single black mothers’ gender-related childrearing expectations and goals.” Sex Roles 60: 656–68.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Bernard. 1981. Moral luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Cheryl Mattingly
Department of Anthropology
Kaprielian Hall
3620 S. Vermont Avenue, Room 348g
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA


1. An earlier version of this example was published in a previous article (Mattingly 2012) and a much more elaborated version of the theoretical claims is given in a forthcoming book (Mattingly in press a).