Domination The Art of Sex
Medical care (or the failure to provide it) is rife with potential for domination.
The sick are vulnerable to those who control what they need to get well (O’Shea 2017, 2018). The disabled choose and act in a world constructed almost entirely for the benefit of and controlled by others (De Wispelaere & Casassas 2014).
Workers often have little say in the conditions or culture of their workplaces (Gourevitch 2011; Breen 2015; Anderson 2017).
Migrant and immigrant populations usually exist in political limbo where they are deeply vulnerable to exploitation and have no legal standing to contest their treatment (Honohan 2014;
Costa 2016; Sager 2017). The consumption habits of wealthy nations shape a global environment in which all humans now and for the foreseeable future will make their choices (Bohman 2011; Nolt 2011; Smith 2012; Smith 2013; Katz 2017).
Most deployment of anti-domination arguments applies neorepublican theories of domination, but there are important exceptions. In addition to the departures from neorepublican accounts noted above
in Friedman’s and Kittay’s work on caregivers and families, other attempts to use domination beyond the traditionally political have yielded revisionary results. For example, Tom O’Shea worries
that the standard neorepublican focus on choice interference, and the worsening of an agent’s choice situation, leaves us ill-equipped to see the possibility for “assistive arbitrary power” in medical care. In these cases, the sick may be vulnerable to domination not because someone acts intentionally to interfere with their choices—e.g., by raising
the price of a drug beyond what they can afford—but by failing to provide a benefit, as when no one will provide transportation to someone with impaired mobility. In a more dramatic departure, Corey Katz argues that the tendency
of mainstream neorepublicanism to ground domination in social relatedness and the possibility for choice interference makes it unfit to diagnose the domination of those yet to be born (2017). If we want to think of
intergenerational injustice as a variety of domination, Katz insists, we must shift to an outcome-based conception that focuses on unjust harm done to future generations, who are unable to resist that harm.
Nothing is less surprising than persistent disagreement in philosophy, but the persistence of disagreement about domination is connected to an interesting question about where the discussion should go from here: What do we want a theory of domination to do?
Is our theory of domination supposed to tell us when people are free and when they are not? Do we want our theory of domination to give us insight into the nature of social injustice? To diagnose political misrule? To motivate a theory of democracy? To describe the underclass
in late capitalist societies? To capture the complaint of racial minorities in oppressive racialized hierarchies? All of the above?
All theories of domination are not equally suited to each of these tasks; as a consequence, the appeal of individual theories may differ according to which we find most pressing
A related question, at present under-explored in the literature, is how domination does or does not relate to other concepts often used to describe power-related injustices:
for example, exploitation, oppression, and subjugation. Young (1990 ) distinguishes between domination and oppression, identifying the former with asymmetric power
over action and the contexts of action, and the latter with the more diffuse and sometimes unconscious shaping of institutions
in ways that deny some social groups the capacity to understand and express themselves except from the perspective of the privileged. Unfortunately, few have followed her in working out a similar division of labor between these concepts.
(For an interesting exceptions, see Bellamy 2007: 151–152.) More common is the neorepublican assumption that concern for injustices like oppression can be folded into concern for
domination (Pettit 1997: 80). Just as all theories of domination are not equally suited to every task we might put them to, it may be that attention to domination itself should be supplemented by attention to other varieties of injustice.
If nothing else, recent work on domination has dramatically sharpened our understanding of such injustice, even if all its varieties cannot usefully be diagnosed as manifestations of this single ill.
The internalization by the dominated of norms supposedly legitimizing their domination is not the only way to connect domination to internalized norms.
Christopher Lebron points to another possibility: perhaps what is necessary isn’t that the dominated accept a rationalization of their condition, but that the dominators do so.
The difference between domination and more benign hierarchies, he claims, is that dominators control “legitimizing myths” that hide their domination.
The simple fact that a worker has a boss does not indicate domination; it may instead indicate only a mutually beneficial arrangement (Lebron 2013: 56).
A boss comes to dominate by accepting and promoting myths that justify their ascendance. What matters, on this account, is that the dominating group imbibe such myths, that their consciousness is shaped, e.g.,
so that their power is mistaken for a feature of nature, or a result of their innate merits or just deserts, not that the dominated manifest a consciousness so altered.
The norm-dependent theories encountered so far look to institutions and systems to embody and promote social norms.
Regardless of whether institutions and systems themselves dominate, standard norm-dependent theories tend to see the existence of institutions as a necessary condition for domination through norms: e.g.,
the patriarch’s power to project authority in his family depends on widely accepted attitudes about the place of fathers in the institution of the family; the slave master’s power to project authority to his slaves depends on an economic a
nd political system permitting property in human lives. Gwilym David Blunt’s theory stands apart by being norm-dependent without requiring background institutions.
According to Blunt, even the mob boss has power over norms: in the language introduced above, this is an interactional site of domination drawn from a personal source: i.e.,
power between agents drawn from the mob boss’ personal control of guns and muscle. Unlike norm-independent theorists such as Lovett, Blunt claims that all social relationships
involve norms. Insofar as the mob boss and the shop owner are socially related, this involves more than non-normative elements like strategic relatedness or exit costs. The asymmetry of power that matters is an asymmetry in the power
to define the status of other parties in a social relationship. The mob boss has power enough to assign the shop owner an inferior place in their social relationships, and set up himself as the one who makes the rules in the relationship.
In this way, Blunt believes he can preserve the standard neorepublican intuition that powerful agents like the mob boss can be dominators within a norm-dependent framework.
Similarly, Forst measures dominating power against an explicitly moralized baseline—power dominates to the extent that it is exercised outside a structure of democratic
institutions designed to secure and respect the equal authority of each citizen to offer and receive adequate justifications (Forst 2013). Noumenal power within social relationships becomes domination when agents within that relationship are denied their right to justification: i.e.,
their right to participate as free equals in the space of reasons (2015: 116–117). Interestingly, Forst’s theory, like Blunt’s non-moralized theory and unlike Richardson’s, apparently allows for domination outside official structures of authority. Dominators,
Forst says, “seal off” the space of reasons by denying our right to receive and offer adequate justifications, but there are many ways to do this. One way is simply through the threat of violence.
If a mob boss has all the guns and muscle, he will be able to crowd the shop owner completely out of the justificatory space. What the shop owner might believe about what they have reason to think and do is irrelevant, given the price they will pay for non-compliance.
Again, if we understand the power required for domination as a kind of authority, it makes sense to diagnose the presence or absence of domination in terms of illicit authority.
When illicit normative authority counts as such because it is claimed by a powerful few, we are pushed firmly in the direction of a reckoning with the normative authority of all. Of course, once this reckoning has begun, it is natural
to diagnose domination in broadly Kantian terms as the absence of institutions securing respect for our autonomy. (See Bohman 2004 for a similar approach applied to international relations.)
Norm-dependent or moralized theories identify domination with some varieties of unrestrained asymmetric power and not others, whether it be power to dictate the norms of a social relationship, to establish legitimizing narratives,
to alter the shape of our supposed rights and duties, to close us off from the space of reasons, to violate our basic interests, or to do us wrong. This makes them more vulnerable to the possibility that domination can take some form not captured by any
of these specific powers. Lovett—an advocate of a non-moralized, norm-independent theory—worries that moralized or norm-dependent theories tend toward a kind of historical or cultural myopia, seeing domination only in whatever
“forms of social power happen to be the predominant instruments of domination” here and now or in time gone by (2010: 92). He recommends we see some of the powers highlighted by moralized or norm-dependent
theories as varieties of domination, but remain alert to other forms it might assume. Of course, devotees of moralization or norm-dependency may respond that the leading non-moralized/norm-independent contenders see domination where there is none,
fail to see its specific threat, or cry “domination” where some other social evil is really the problem.
Domination and Applied Ethics
Because power asymmetries persist in other contexts outside the traditionally political, the idea of domination has been marshaled beyond political philosophy in applied ethics.
Anti-domination approaches have an ecumenical appeal. Few deny that the paradigms are examples of injustice; thus, to show that some power structure or use of power resembles these paradigms goes a long way toward motivating a verdict against them.
Awareness of domination also draws our attention to the ways moral wrong can be manifest outside the limits of individual actions.
Aside from questions about which individual actions are wrong, other questions become important. Who is empowered to act in what ways? How are potential victims empowered to resist?
Who is vulnerable even if not actually victimized? However benevolent, who makes the rules? Who obeys or refuses to obey, and what does their compliance (or refusal) cost them? How do the actions of those with more power construct the space where the less powerful or the powerless must act?