What Kind of Power Is Domination?
Exercised or unexercised, what kind of power is domination? If domination is about how social relationships are structured, what is A in a position to do if A dominates B? If domination requires the exercise of power, how does A use their power when they dominate B?
Along one dimension, we can sort answers to these questions into the moralized vs. the non-moralized.
For a moralized theory, identifying domination requires us to settle more foundational questions about what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.
For example, if we say that dominating power is the power to violate human rights, our theory of domination depends on a theory of human rights—obviously a moral theory.
Non-moralized theories hold that we can identify domination without reference to theories of the right or the good. For example, if we say that dominating power is power over the means of production,
our theory of domination will depend on a [plausibly] descriptive theory of what counts as the means of production.
Of course, those who insist that domination can be defined without making moral judgments aren’t usually committed to what Ian Carter calls “value-independence” about the phenomenon,
or “the complete detachment of our analysis from all ethical concerns” (2015: 280–281). Contributions to the contemporary discussion of domination from all-comers are generally motivated by profound ethical concerns.
Sorting is also required along another dimension. In addition to questions of moralization or non-moralization, there is the question of how domination relates to the use of power to dictate norms and rules,
or the use of power to claim authority. Is domination always an attempt to rule? Does domination always involve a claim—however mistaken—by dominators that their power is legitimate?
Does domination always involve an attempt by the powerful to demand that the dominated conform to norms? If you answer any of these questions in the affirmative, you advocate a norm-dependent theory of domination.
Confusion is easy here, given that moralized theories often appeal to norms and rules. The difference between such moralized theories and non-moralized but norm-dependent theories depends
on the difference between correct moral norms/rules as distinguished from just any norm or rule. Norm-dependent theories say that domination always involves power exercised through norms and rules that some regard as
legitimate—perhaps the dominator, perhaps the dominated, or perhaps both. As we will see, for theories that are not just norm-dependent but also moralized, domination always involves a failure to respect the moral status of agents as sources
of the norms that govern them. For a merely norm-dependent theory, the domination of a patriarch might be essentially connected to the patriarch’s claim that he deserves obedience from his
family. Obviously, whether or not someone claims or doesn’t claim to deserve obedience is a merely descriptive matter; as a result, such a theory is not moralized. The legitimacy of the patriarch’s authority is merely sociological, not moral. If a theory of domination says instead that the patriarch dominates because his demand for obedience unjustly undermines the right of his spouse and children to shape the norms that govern them, that theory is both norm-dependent and moralized. A theory that depends in part on an account of unjust infringements is clearly moralized.
It is not always easy to sort theories into these categories. The sorting is complicated by the fact that whether a theory is moralized or norm-dependent is sometimes a matter of active controversy. (This is particularly true of Pettit’s theory of domination.) In what follows, theories will be sorted to reflect the intentions of the theorist—at least as far as these intentions can be discerned.
Once we recognize the distinction between moralization and norm-dependency, we end up with four kinds of answer to the question “What kind of power is domination?” Assuming for now that only agents (represented here by A and B) can dominate or be dominated:
|Non-Moralized||If A dominates B, A has or exercises uncontrolled power over what B is in a position to do.||If A dominates B, A has or exercises sociologically legitimate power over what B is in a position to do.|
|Moralized||If A dominates B, A has or exercises power over what B is in a position to do by violating B’s rights or undermining B’s interests with impunity.||If A dominates B, A has or exercises power over what B is in a position to do that is both sociologically legitimate and unconstrained by institutions designed to protect B’s rights and interests.|
This section will examine theories from each division, with their basic motivations and primary exemplars.
Moralized, Norm-Dependent Theories
It doesn’t look like we must appeal to moral concepts to say whether a powerful person can or cannot dictate social norms; but, for an influential cluster of theories, the norm-dependence of domination is constructed in specifically moral terms.
This is an understandable move. After all, if we think domination is always expressed through norms, and we think that domination is morally illegitimate even when socially legitimate, it makes sense to think of domination as a specific failure to reckon with morally legitimate norms.
For theories of domination that are moralized as well as norm-dependent, we diagnose domination not just as power expressed through authority claims, but as a specific kind of morally illegitimate authority.
Given that the most influential moralized/norm-dependent theories—Henry Richardson’s and Rainer Forst’s—developed either within or in direct response to neorepublicanism, it is not surprising to find here a similar two-movement approach to domination; first giving an account of power manifest in domination but also in benign forms of power, and second, giving an account of what makes domination distinct and unjust.
For Richardson, the broader category of benign or even legitimate power is the power to “modify the rights and duties of others” (2002: 34). An agent may have this power without dominating anyone; dominators exercise an unauthorized variety of this “normative power”.
Richardson here is motivated again by the desire to steer around what he thinks are neorepublican false positives: criminals like the mob boss do not, he claims, dominate.
If an uncontrolled capacity to interfere with choice dominates, we are dominated by the mere possibility that our neighbors will slash our tires in the night. Secret tire-slashing may be arbitrary choice-interference, but it serves no obvious role in wielding normative power.
Forst favors the language of reasons in identifying the broader category of power of which domination is a subset. All social power, he says, is power “within the space of reasons
”—specifically justifying reasons. This is why he calls his account of power noumenal: power is not based merely on the control of material resources, but instead on influence over what other agents see as justified thought or action.
That you have a lot of some material resource—say, money—is irrelevant from the perspective of power unless you can use it to alter what others think they have most reason to do. In general, Forst says, power is “the capacity of
A to motivate B to think or do something that B would otherwise not have thought or done” (2015: 115). It is clear enough that such power has innocent varieties: when a teacher shows a student a new way to solve a math problem, they motivate them to think and do in ways they would not otherwise. Gentle persuasion between friends manifests the same power.
So, both Richardson and Forst try to situate domination within a broader, essentially normative phenomenon, the power to place others under [supposed] duties or the power to affect what others regard as justified. What, then, makes domination distinct and unjust?
For both Richardson and Forst, domination involves a violation of our rights relative to the normative domain. Dominators claim authority or power within the space of reasons that properly belongs to the dominated.
Domination is power unbound by the moral standing of its victims as co-authors of the norms that bind them. For Richardson, who focuses specifically on power in the political context, the arbitrariness of normative power manifests itself along several moralized dimensions: dominating power fails to express “
fair” deliberative processes among “free and equal citizens” that respect “fundamental rights and liberties” (2002: 52). The slave master dominates because he takes for himself a power that belongs properly to his slaves:
we have a moral right to decide together what our political rights and duties will be. He is able to do this because his role as a master of slaves has institutional support. If one of his slaves runs away, he can call on the state to track the slave down and return them.
This is how real dominators are distinct from deluded claimants to normative power. Imagine a mob boss who comes to believe that he speaks for God. He might believe that he has a power to create rights and duties; even so, without social and legal backing analogous to what a tyrant or slave master or patriarch can depend on,
the mob boss will not succeed even in creating illegitimate rights and duties—and so will fail to dominate on a theory like Richardson’s.
While Pettit analyzes domination in terms of choice-interference, his favorite heuristic focuses directly on dominated agents, and the way they are social related to their dominators. To be dominated, for Pettit, is to fail “the eyeball test”: i.e.,
you cannot “look others in the eye without reason for the fear or deference that a power of interference might inspire” (2012: 84). Other theories share this emphasis on domination as a kind of power within a social relationship and tend to prefer it to talk of choice-interference (Lovett 2010; McCammon 2015).
What is a social relationship? A’s social relatedness to B, first of all, seems to require strategic relatedness, in the sense that what B is likely to do is a function, at least in part, of what A does.
To get from social relatedness to domination has other requirements. It is difficult to see how A could dominate B unless A has more power over B than B has over
A within their social relationship. Further, for A to have power over B plausibly requires that B cannot easily exit the relationship. If someone can easily get a new job just as good as the one they have already, their “exit costs” are low, and they will have a correspondingly low dependence on the social relationship—probably too low for domination to occur (Lovett 2010).
It may be that A’s power over B, and B’s exit costs from their social relationship, are not really separate conditions, that A’s power over B is a function of A’s control of resources B cannot access except through A (see Pansardi 2013).
A capacity for choice-interference, or social relatedness however rendered, is necessary but not sufficient for domination on a non-moralized/norm-independent theory.
To get domination, something more is required than mere choice-interference or power within a social relationship.
Neorepublicans first referred to this “something more” as the arbitrariness of dominating power, and still do with some regularity, but Pettit himself now favors the language of control or the absence of control (2012: 57–58).
This move was an attempt to emphasize the non-moralized nature of his theory. (For criticism connected to this shift in Pettit’s presentation, see especially Christman 1998, Costa 2007,
and McMahon 2005.) The terminological shift was probably wise, given the natural tendency to contrast arbitrary power with power backed by good reasons or power put to good purpose.
Arbitrary power, for neorepublicans, has never been merely unreasoned power. Though Pettit earlier emphasized the connection between arbitrary power and power that fails to track the “interests” of those subject to it, he measured interests not by an independent notion of the objective good or objectively reasonable, but by appeal to what interests are “avowed” or “avowal-ready” (2006: 275–276).
The language of control also has echoes in his earlier work. For example, in Republicanism he says that an act is arbitrary “by virtue of the controls—or more precisely the lack of controls—under which it materializes” (1997: 55).
This shift toward domination as uncontrolled power follows Pettit’s more recent attempts to contrast domination with well-constructed democracy, but the opposition of democratically constrained power and dominating power reflects his earlier insistence that we cannot know when power is arbitrary except “by recourse to public discussion in which people may speak for themselves and for the groups to which they belong” (1997: 56).
Here, too, he connects his own theory to Iris Young’s account of domination in Justice and the Politics of Difference. Young says that domination is the “opposite” of “thorough social and political democracy” and defines life within structures of domination as living under others who
can determine without reciprocation the conditions of [the dominated person’s] actions, either directly or by virtue of the structural consequences of their actions. (1990 [2011: 38])
The most common approaches to moralization without norm-dependence couch domination in terms of violating “basic” or “best” interests.
Allen (1999), Lukes (2005), and Wartenberg (1990) are primary advocates of a “basic” interests approach. Kittay (1999: 34), Laborde (2013: 285), and Shapiro (2012: 310;
2016: 23) share an emphasis on “best” interests. Shapiro looks to local custom for guidance about the standard for legitimate power, unless those customs dramatically undercut the interests of the less powerful. For example,
he is happy to leave judgments of legitimate parental power to parents, except for those who would deny their children education and healthcare.
The baseline is what is necessary to live as “a normal adult” in the context of contemporary democracies (2012: 294). Laborde moralizes basic interests by appeal to what “we have reason to value” (2013: 285),
as opposed to what people might actually value. A non-moralized account of basic interests, of course, might connect interests to what people actually value,
regardless of what they have reason to value. But this would leave us in the awkward position of being unable to recognize domination in brainwashed slaves who value their subordination.
Lovett’s arguments for proceduralism have provoked several clarifications of what substantivism requires.
Proceduralism highlights what Gwilym David Blunt (2015) calls “sources” of domination that are personal as opposed to social, and “sites” of domination that are interactional as opposed to systemic.
Widely known and reliably enforced checks on power, of the kind emphasized by proceduralism, really do reduce domination enabled by personal sources of power like
A’s possession of more guns or guile than B, especially when this power is expressed in the interactions of A and B as individual agents. If A and B are neighbors, and A has a huge stockpile of weapons and B has none,
it makes sense to think of B’s complaint against A as a matter of their intense vulnerability to power constrained only by A’s whims. Substantivism may be better equipped to recognize domination
in what Blunt calls social “sources” and systemic “sites”. In actual systems of domination, A often has power over B not because A alone has more power (e.g., by having more guns of their own), but because
A and B both live within a system intended to advantage A’s group and disadvantage B’s. Often, in such cases, A has power to adjust the system, or access to such power, while B does not.
There is another way to account for proceduralism’s insistence that reliably enforced, common-knowledge rules reduce domination even without democratic constraints. When A alone decides whether and how to harass B, A’s power to harass B is checked only by
A’s sense of what is best or what should be done. Suppose A lives in a society that introduces a reliably enforced, common-knowledge rule that A can harass B only by putting B in the stocks but may not whip B. This changes the situation both for A and B. Now, A alone does not decide whether and how to harass B: now, A is not checked simply by what
A thinks they have reason to do. In this way, A’s power is less “deliberatively isolated” (McCammon 2015). If this is right, domination can be reduced even by non-democratic reforms. However, laws and other limits on individual
power may be formed by whole groups in a deliberatively isolated manner, as under Jim Crow and apartheid, if the members of A’s group have input into the rules, but the members of B’s group do not. Empowered groups often
dictate the terms of their dealings with subordinated groups based only on their own sense of how things should be, and the deliberatively isolated power of groups may be strengthened by measures that reduce the deliberative isolation of individuals.
Moralized, Norm-Independent Theories
Norm-independent, moralized theories of domination are less influential than non-moralized varieties. Even so, their appeal is easy to see. There is straightforward reason to moralize domination: i.e., dominators use their power to do bad things.
Slave masters rape and assault their slaves. Men within patriarchy rape and assault women. Domination allows evil deeds go unpunished. This impunity is perhaps what matters most to those who think of domination in a moralized way.
To be sure, not that every act of moral wrong manifests domination. When a master tortures his slave, this is domination; but when a slave gets the drop on his master and tortures him it
may not be, even on the assumption that both cases of torture are wrong. Why? The difference is in what the master will face as a consequence for torturing the slave, as opposed to what the slave will face for torturing the master.
The master wrongs the slave with impunity; the slave wrongs the master only at grave risk from the enforcers of the system that enslaves him. To get domination instead of wrongdoing, it is necessary to include a requirement like this: as a first pass, A dominates B just because
A can wrong B in the context of an asymmetric power relation favoring A. If A can wrong B with impunity, and B knows this, A will be well-positioned to exercise control over B. B will know that refusal to comply with A may result in violation of B’s rights or interests.