The group home as moral laboratory: tracing the ethic of autonomy in Dutch intellectual disability care

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This paper examines the prevalence of the ideal of “independence” in intellectual disability care in the Netherlands. It responds to a number of scholars who have interrogated this ideal through the lens of Michel Foucault’s vocabulary of governmentality. Such analyses hold that the goal of “becoming independent” subjects people with intellectual disabilities to various constraints and limitations that ensure their continued oppression. As a result, these authors contend, the commitment to the ideal of “independence” – the “ethic of autonomy” – actually threatens to become an obstacle to flourishing in the group home. This paper offers an alternative analysis. It does so by drawing on a case study taken from an ethnographic study on group home life in the Netherlands. Briefly put, the disagreement stems from differing conceptualizations of moral life. Put in the vocabulary of moral anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly, the authors propose to approach the group home more from a “first-person” perspective rather than chiefly from a “third-person” perspective. They then draw on Mattingly to cast the group home as a “moral laboratory” in which the ethic of autonomy is not just reproduced but also enacted, and in which the terms of (in)dependence constantly get renegotiated in practice. What emerges is not only a new perspective on the workings of the “ethic of autonomy” in the group home, but also an argument about the possible limitations of the vocabulary of governmentality for analysing care practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-125
Number of pages13
JournalMedicine, Health Care and Philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jan 2021


  • Autonomy
  • Care
  • Disability
  • Governmentality
  • Intellectual disability
  • Moral laboratory

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