Domination The Art of Sex
There is, of course, considerable disagreement about what domination really is. Even so, theorists of domination tend to agree about this much: domination is a kind of unconstrained,
unjust imbalance of power that enables agents or systems to control other agents or the conditions of their actions. We can call this “the basic idea” of domination. The basic idea has the following components:
Domination is a kind of power, and usually social power—that is, power over other people.
Domination involves imbalances or asymmetries in power. The English domination comes from the Latin dominus. A dominus is a master, and mastery represents an extreme of social power.
Masters usually have all but complete control over how their slaves will act or over the conditions in which they act.
As a result, the master/slave relation is often treated as the most obvious case of domination.
Domination has many forms. Traditional Roman republicanism recognized a distinction between imperium and dominium—domination by the state contrasted with domination by private parties (Pettit 1997; 31; 2001: 152ff).
The power a master has over a slave may be the clearest case of domination, but it is not necessary to have a literal dominus in order to be dominated.
For example, tyrants over their subjects and men over women in patriarchal societies are also common examples of domination.
Combined with the master/slave, these examples are so common in the literature that we can refer to them together simply as the Paradigms.
Failure to explain why the Paradigms count as domination is sometimes considered reason enough to reject a theory of domination (see Lovett 2010, Blunt 2015, and McCammon 2015).
Other examples may not manifest the extremes of power we see in the Paradigms; but it is generally agreed that domination comes in degrees, and that someone may be dominated even if nobody has total power over them.
Dominating power is in some sense unconstrained. It is up to masters how they will or will not use their power.
Such power is often described as arbitrary or discretionary; or, perhaps, unlimited by the interests of those under its sway; or, perhaps, projects only the vision of the world most favorable to the empowered while preventing the subjugated from seeing themselves or the world on their own terms.
However it is characterized, that claim that domination counts as such because of the absence of some limit recurs in many theories.
Domination is an unjust or morally illegitimate form of social power. Whatever domination turns out to be, it is morally serious.
It is a complaint (Pettit 2005). To be dominated is typically to have cause for indignation and resentment against the dominator or against institutions that dominate or make domination possible.
Much contemporary disagreement about domination involves competing answers to three questions:
(1) Who, or what, can dominate? (2) Is it possible to dominate merely by having power with a certain structure, or is domination an exercise or an abuse of power?
(3) Exercised or unexercised, what kind of power is domination?
The remainder of this entry will address each of these questions in turn, then conclude with a survey of how the idea of domination has been used in recent applied ethical theory.
It will become clear as we examine competing answers to these three questions that different theorists have very different ideas of why, exactly,
we need a theory of domination. There may be wide agreement that we need the idea of domination to make sense of unjust power relations,
but unjust power relations are wildly varied, and theorists of domination disagree not only about which varieties most need to be understood, but about how theorizing domination helps us to understand them.
Another word of qualification before proceeding: what follows is a survey of work almost entirely from Anglophone political philosophers and political theorists, broadly within the Analytic tradition. For theories of domination from the Continental tradition, see the entry, feminist perspectives on power
Does Character Matter after All?
There are two primary lines of objection to the claim that only a change in how power relations are structured can check domination, rather than changes to the outcome of the relation or to the character of the empowered.
The first is that it fails to capture realities of what the dominated really object to; the second is that it leads to significant over-generalization.
No one denies that victims of power object to the outcomes of its use, and not merely to their initial vulnerability to that power. (Certainly, neorepublicans want to say that both are objectionable.)
But if we insist that domination refers properly only to the structure of a power relation, and not to outcomes of that relation, we may have a difficult time explaining the standard use of domination to refer to overwhelming power wielded against the defenseless. Suppose
Columbus had merely sailed around the margins of the “New World” without making landfall, and that his power to exploit and destroy native cultures was never exercised.
Is this counterfactual history still a story of European domination? If not, it is tempting to identify European domination with the actual harm inflicted on people who were not equipped to resist the
There is reason to think, too, that the dominated sometimes have complaints specifically about the character of the powerful. This issue has been revisited in the work of Christopher
Lebron (2013) and Melvin Rogers (forthcoming). Rogers especially insists that theories of domination influenced by neorepublicanism overplay the irrelevance of character to dominating power.
His recent work on black American republicans like Martin Delany (1852 ), Hosea Easton (1837 ), Maria W. Stewart (1987), David Walker (1829 ),
Does Domination Require the Exercise of Power?
Domination as a Power Structure
One of the most persistent recent disagreements concerns whether or not domination requires the exercise of power. Neorepublicans tend to link domination to what agents are in a position to do or have the capacity to do rather than what agents actually do
This is mostly because of the role domination plays within neorepublican ideas of freedom. The classical liberal theory of freedom—
the neorepublican’s primary competitor and foil—is supposedly defective just because it identifies freedom with the absence of actual choice-interference.
Neorepublicans say their advantage is the way they highlight how potential interference reduces freedom. This is the point of the most famous example from the republican tradition:
the slaves of a kind or lazy master are slaves nonetheless, and so are paradigmatically unfree even though their master is too kind or lazy to interfere with them.
What does it look like to have power that counts as domination even though unexercised? In addition to the language encountered above highlighting the “capacities” of the powerful,
neorepublicans emphasize what Lovett (2010) calls the structure instead of the outcome of dominating power relations. Whether or not an employer can fire their employees at will is about how the employer/employee relationship is structured;
whether or not an employer actually fires an employee, or whether or not the employee manages not to starve because they have the job, manifests the outcome of the relationship. This way of examining social relationships looks away from how empowered agents exercise their power to the nature of that power itself.
We do not stop objecting to paradigmatic dominators merely because they promise to make kind and judicious use of their powers; emancipation seems to require that they cease to have that kind of power.
This highlights neorepublican doubts about whether self-regulation by the powerful can reduce domination (Lovett 2010: 97). At an extreme, Pettit has said that domination persists without “external checks that remove or replace the interference option or put it cognitively off the menu”;
that domination is reduced only by “exogenous” forces; or, if internal, forces that “disable” in the manner of deep-seated neuroses (2012: 63).
Who, or What, Can Dominate?
Domination by Agents, Group Agents, and Groups
The neorepublican traditiontends to present domination as a relation between agents; only agents can dominate or be dominated (Pettit 1997: 52), though the agent/agents might be a group or collective.
Domination by groups may not require that they do so as a group agent
. The metaphysics of group agency usually require shared beliefs or joint intentions among the members of the group; but, dominating power may be grounded in group membership
even if that group, or some of its members, do not meet the metaphysical requirements for group agency.
At least for those who think unexercised power is sufficient for domination, a man who rejects the patriarchy of his society may still dominate women because of what he is in a position to do—e.g., have his testimony
in court taken more seriously than a woman’s—even if he explicitly rejects and tries to undermine patriarchal institutions.
A minority position in the literature sees domination fundamentally as a relation between groups, where any domination between individuals is parasitic on group membership.
If this is true, the domination of one individual by another counts as such only because one belongs to a dominant group and the other belongs to a subordinate group (Wartenberg 1990).
reveals a contrasting emphasis on the “comportment” of white Americans. Opposing race-based systems of domination requires not just “freedom from the arbitrary power” of white Americans, but a “transformation of the system of cultural value in which blacks occupy a lower position of worth” (Rogers, forthcoming).
This transformation requires not only the external checks on domination achievable by legal reforms, but a transformation in the hearts of white Americans. Rogers argues that neorepublican
theories of domination are formed by resistance to political slavery, where the essential humanity of the slave is not in question; unlike chattel slavery, which was built on and maintained
by an ideological commitment to white supremacy and black inferiority. Legal reforms may be sufficient to counter political slavery: they represent a turn of the legal
order toward closer alignment with the already acknowledged value of the enslaved. However, legal reforms alone, while necessary, are not enough when this value is systematically denied.