Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 202–223 | Cite as

Humanity at the Edge: The Moral Laboratory of Feeding Precarious Lives

  • Mette N. SvendsenEmail author
  • Iben M. Gjødsbøl
  • Mie S. Dam
  • Laura E. Navne
Original Paper


At the heart of anthropology and the social sciences lies a notion of human existence according to which humans and animals share the basic need for food, but only humans have the capacity for morality. Based on fieldwork in a pig laboratory, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and a dementia nursing home, we follow practices of feeding precarious lives lacking most markers of human personhood, including the exercise of moral judgment. Despite the absence of such markers, laboratory researchers and caregivers in these three sites do not abstain from engaging in questions about the moral status of the piglets, infants, and people with dementia in their care. They continually negotiate how their charges belong to the human collectivity and thereby challenge the notion of ‘the human’ that is foundational to anthropology. Combining analytical approaches that do not operate with a fixed boundary between human and animal value and agency with approaches that focus on human experience and virtue ethics, we argue that ‘the human’ at stake in the moral laboratory of feeding precarious lives puts ‘the human’ in anthropology at disposal for moral experimentation.


Human personhood Moral laboratory Animal experimentation Multi-species Neonatal intensive care Dementia care 



Our sincere thanks to the researchers in the pig laboratory, and the many caregivers in the NICU and the dementia nursing home, all of whom invited us into their daily work practices and willingly engaged in conversations with us. Thank you to the participants in the panel “Moral (and other) Laboratories” at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver 2015 and to the participants in the workshop “Human and Animals at the Margins” in Copenhagen 2016. Thank you to Teresa Kuan and Lone Grøn for encouraging us to address the issue of “moral laboratories” across our sites and for organizing this special issue. For intellectual inspiration, we are grateful to Tobias Rees who commented on an earlier version of this article and to the two anonymous reviewers who contributed with highly constructive feedback and helped us sharpen our arguments. We acknowledge the support from the Danish Research Councils (Sapere Aude grant 12-133657) and from the research centre NEOMUNE.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mette N. Svendsen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Iben M. Gjødsbøl
    • 1
  • Mie S. Dam
    • 1
  • Laura E. Navne
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Public Health, Centre for Medical Science and Technology StudiesUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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