Domination: A Rethinking

Ethics 125 (4):1028-1052 (2015)
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Sometimes dictators are benevolent. Sometimes masters are kind and gentle to their slaves. John Adams was a pretty good "husband" to Abigail Adams. But it seems like there’s something very wrong with being a dictator or a master or a spouse with the power that John Adams had over Abigail Adams in late 18th Century America. A theory of domination tries to pinpoint what’s distinctive about dictatorship and mastery and traditional husbanding, and what is distinctively wrong with such—even the benevolent, kind, gentle, and pretty good varieties. There has been a lot of thinking about domination over the last twenty-five or so years. This is due largely to the efforts of republican political philosophers, who have used domination and its absence — nondomination — as the primary moving part in their conceptions of freedom. Even so, perhaps because domination has often appeared in a supporting role for the analysis of other concepts, conceptualizing domination itself is still a fairly nascent endeavor. Accounts of domination need at least two movements. First, domination is a subset of a social phenomenon with—at least more or less—unobjectionable varieties. Maybe this social phenomenon is power; maybe it’s the capacity to interfere with choice; maybe something else. Whatever it is, it’s plausible to think it’s not always bad. Sometimes it’s perfectly alright to have power over someone else; sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the capacity to interfere with someone’s choices. (For example, if what you’d rather do is go after your neighbor with a meat-axe, it’s a good thing if someone is in a position to interfere with you, or if your choice situation can be worsened, so that charging next door, axe in hand, without having to worry about a lengthy prison sentence is not among your options.) The first task of a theory of domination is to specify exactly what this broader social phenomenon is. Next we need to figure out what gives domination its negative moral valence, and thus sets it apart from that broader social phenomenon. Republicans usually say that what makes domination morally problematic is its arbitrariness. Frank Lovett claims that domination is instantiated in a social relationship between A and B only if A is permitted to exercise power over B arbitrarily (2010, 120). Philip Pettit, until recently, claimed that domination is a capacity for arbitrary interference. Marilyn Friedman calls it “arbitrary interference in someone’s choices…”(2008, 265). If that’s right, and arbitrariness is the difference maker between forms of social power that aren’t domination and those that are, we need a story about what arbitrariness is. Such are the two essential tasks of conceptualizing domination. I offer here what I think are important course-corrections for recent attempts to complete them. In §1 I set out some desiderata for a useful conception of domination before sketching the elements of earlier attempts I think we can’t do without. §2 addresses the problem of “cheap domination”. This is the problem of identifying ordinary, innocuous human interactions with anything we call domination. I don’t think we should do this, but some of the most influential accounts of domination on offer nowadays — in particular, Lovett’s and Pettit’s — have this result. Instead, I contend that only certain forms of social power can underwrite domination, and try to provide a principled way of identifying what these forms are like. Finally, in §3, I address the nature of arbitrariness



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Christopher McCammon
Tidewater Community College

Citations of this work

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