Legitimizing Unrighteous Dominion

This post should probably broken into a several different posts and published as a lengthy series, which was my original intent. However, I decided that I didn’t want to engage in any discussion of the content until the most of the series was available, and that is best achieved by just posting in two segments.

Part 1 of The Species of Unrighteous Dominion


A year ago, I was sitting in the periodicals section of the HBLL library reading my social psychology textbook. It was the beginning of the semester, and I had just opened my book for the first time. The author started the book with this compelling argument for the power of social context:

To illustrate social psychology at work, try this exercise. Take a clean piece of paper, and fold it in half the long way. Now open it up,  and fold one top corner down to meet the center crease. Then fold the other top corner down the same way. Now fold the paper in half again along the center crease. Fold one of the long sides backward to the outside of the crease, making another fold parallel to the center one. Flip the paper over and repeat this last step on the other side. What is this shape? What does it look like?

If you are like most readers, you have probably read this far and not done what I just asked you to do, you are reading on ahead to see if it is really necessary to put the book down, find a piece of paper, think through each instruction, fold the paper, and so on. No one will know whether you do it or not, so why bother until you find out if you really have to? You are especially unlikely to have followed these instructions if you are sitting someplace where other people can see you.

Now, try a thought experiment: compare your reactions to those of students in my social psychology classes. In large and small classes alike, to a person, they all obediently take their pristine course syllabus, fold it in half, fold down the top corners, and construct … what? A paper airplane.

I never quite have the nerve to ask my students to take off their shoes and put them on their desks, or to stand up and face the back of the classroom and wave at the projection booth, but I suspect they would probably comply. Why? Would they normally take off their shoes and put them on the desk in front of them? Would they normally fold their syllabus into a paper airplane? Then, why do they do it, semester after semester, year after year? … And why did you not fold the paper airplane when I asked you to?

The author of this textbook, Susan Fiske, didn’t need to know anything about my personality, my history, or my goals and ambitions to be able to precisely predict my reaction to the text. All she needed to do was correctly guess my social context. She uses this example to illustrate the power of social context in unlocking the key to predicting (and, perhaps, manipulating) human behavior.

I’m not a determinist. I believe we have moral agency, and no social influence exerts a causal force on our behaviors. But social situations provide a context within which we make our choices. By social context, I’m referring to the social roles that we are assigned by society. And the above excerpt provides a fantastic example of how the roles defined by our social context provide cues about what kind of behavior is appropriate, expected, or desirable. If I walked up to a random person in the Cougareat at BYU and instructed them to take off their shoes and place them on the table, nobody would comply. However, once my instructions are legitimized by my role as a teacher, and the context of a classroom, students will invariably comply—even if my instructions make no sense whatsoever. Behaviors that are ordinarily strange or weird (like putting your shoes on their desks, or making a paper airplane) are no longer as strange or abnormal when performed under the direction of the instructor.

There are numerous examples of this process that are usually considered benign. In the LDS worldview, sexual intercourse is ordinarily considered a sin, unless and until the two parties take on the roles of husband and wife. Disciplining a stranger’s child is usually taboo, but if you are the child’s parent, everything changes. It would be morally wrong for me to claim inspiration regarding a person’s worthiness to enter the temple, unless I was that person’s bishop or stake president. Now, there is a difference between agreeing with someone’s behavior and legitimizing someone’s behavior. For example, I might say, “Well, I’m pretty sure that person isn’t worthy to enter the temple, based upon what I saw him doing with his girlfriend last night. But, it is the bishop’s prerogative to make those decisions.” In that scenario, I might consider the bishop’s decision mistaken, but I recognize his stewardship to make it. So while I might disagree, I still see the bishop’s authority in that context as legitimate.

All of the above are examples in which social context legitimizes behavior that would otherwise be inappropriate. It’s as common as day, and vital part of the social fabric of society. However, sometimes this process can lead us to commit wrongs we might otherwise not do. This is particularly true when our social contexts legitimize the use of violence and and power. In these contexts, there is constant danger of exerting unrighteous dominion. The term unrighteous dominion comes from the Doctrine and Covenants, in which the Lord says, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). I believe that it this refers to whenever we unrighteously attempt to exert control and dominion over others.

The central assertion I wish to make in this post applies to a broad spectrum of human activity, and not just to politics and law: people will almost always abuse the use of power when it has been legitimized by social context. In addition, people will often willingly allow themselves to be used by those with power, also as long as that power has been legitimized by social context.

Unrighteous Dominion

I think the examples above are pretty benign, but there are also examples that are more ambiguous. Let me present one that I deal with on a regular basis, as both a graduate student and as an instructor at BYU. In reference to the grading system in school, A. Legrand Richards, explains: “If students were not viewed as ‘students’ by those labeled ‘teachers’ then the very people making the judgments would feel it immoral to rank them. Young men who decide to rank women on a scale from 1-10 are considered crass and vulgar, unless they are assigned by some institution to be judges in a beauty contest.” Here, we see that the act of ranking and categorizing students is something that is legitimized by the social context, and which would otherwise be considered inappropriate or disturbing.

The truth is, teachers have an immense amount of power over their students. There are some compelling arguments that the use of this power can almost invariably lead to unrighteous dominion. Teachers can assign arbitrary busywork and make egregious demands on students, demands that can often affect the student’s entire academic and professional future. I once failed a paper for simply not putting pages numbers on the pages—and the teacher himself admitted that the paper was otherwise the best written paper in the class. At a BYU devotional, A. Legrand Richards argued:

The typical teacher-student relationship is a hierarchical and secular one–like the king to his subjects. To illustrate this, I sometimes ask my students for a week or two to address me as “Your Royal Highness”–just to show them how embarrassingly well it fits. “Oh, Your Royal Highness, I tried to get my assignment to you on time, but I was hit by a train on my way to campus and I’ve been crawling for three days. Won’t you please, please, accept it a little late?”

Do you realize how I could respond? “Well, my lowly subject, first you must run 12 laps around the McKay Building and kiss my ring. And then I have to decide whether it is fair to the other subjects in my kingdom who got their assignments in on time!” You may love your kings or hate them, but the hierarchical relationship of secular power is typical of the world’s education.

Now, we may disagree with teachers who are overly harsh or strict with their students. We may disagree with professors who fail students for small things (such as being late to class due to car troubles). Again, the point isn’t so much whether we agree with the particular actions. The point is that their roles within the social context legitimize the actions we disagree with. For example, we might say, “Well, that teacher is quite the bully. But that’s his prerogative. After all, he is the teacher.” I’ve heard people say that in response to my own academic horror stories. Or we might say, “The judge of that beauty contest is so biased in favor of brunettes!” But saying that isn’t questioning his authority as a the judge. It’s just questioning his judgment. A. Legrand Richards continues:

Given the secular model on which universities are built, even teachers who see themselves as brothers and sisters may, almost unwittingly, slip into patterns that are not consistent with the Lord’s way. As long as I viewed my teachers as classroom kings, the roles we played were part of the game—there was no need to admit that I was a brother nor that they were. As brothers and sisters, most teachers sincerely want to be helpful. Nearly all are passionate about their subjects and are delighted to assist anyone who is truly curious or even slightly interested in some aspect of their specialty. Most sincerely feel the responsibility to provide only the best possible learning experiences, but as role players in the game, we look very different. When we, as teachers, are not acting as brothers and sisters, we often act like petty tyrants, making demands and judgments of you that are anything but familial. Can you imagine how your spouse or your family would react if you demanded to be treated as their king or queen? Few situations better illustrate the problem of unrighteous dominion than those of teachers who forget their relationship to their students when they acquire “a little authority, as they suppose” (D&C 121:39).

Richards is exactly right: because their role as a teacher and the context of the classroom legitimizes such behavior, teachers will often exercise unrighteous dominion over their students. Now, most of the time it is subtle and most of the time it is moderately benign. And it certainly prepares us for our professions, where our employer’s role as boss and the context of the workplace will legitimize similar kinds of unrighteous dominion. But it’s something we should be aware of nonetheless.

An Atrocious Example

There are many other examples of this phenomenon that are far from harmless. For example, non-conensual sexual intercourse (rape) is condemned by most cultures, but in many cultures, taking on the role of husband legitimizes non-consensual sexual intercourse. Just like it is expected and acceptable for teachers to rank their students and for parents to discipline their children, in many cultures, in these cultures, it is expected and acceptable for husbands to rape their wives. Someone within that cultural context could easily be heard to say, “Well, I don’t agree with treating one’s wife that way, but since he’s her husband, it’s his prerogative to make that decision.” This mindset is sadly alive and well in many nations of the world, and was far more prevalent in not-too-distant history (even in the U.S.).

The fact that something that would ordinarily be considered a criminally violent act of agression can be legitimized in such a way is truly terrifying. In many of these cultures, the act isn’t even called rape. This illustrates something interesting: when social context legitimizes aggression, it not only isn’t perceived as the act of aggression it really is, but often the usual derogative terms used to describe the aggression (rape, theft, etc.) are thought to no longer apply. Language itself reflects the perceived legitimizing effects our social roles have on otherwise immoral actions.

Lest you think I’m simply making all this up, let me share with you a few psychological experiments that demonstrate how prevalent this legitimizing process really is.

We Willingly Comply with Legitimized Authority

In several fascinating experiments (performed by Bickman and replicated by several others), researchers would approach random strangers on the street and ask them to perform a simple but inconvenient task (e.g., “Would you give a dime to that man over there at the parking meter?” or “Would you please pick up that paper bag over there and throw it in the trash bin?”). When the researchers were dressed as security guards, many more people willingly complied with their requests, even though the security guard was unarmed and far from any building that they might be monitering. The experiment has been repeated many times, and so far the only variable that seems to account for the difference was the legitimizing power of the security guard uniform. Being asked to do something by a person with perceived authority somehow legitimized obedience.

Stanley Milgram performed a highly controversial experiment that demonstrated just how this legitimizing effect can be. He invited random participants off of the street to assist in a scientific experiment. He instructed them to send progressively severe electric shocks to a man sitting in an adjacent room every time he answered a question wrongly, to see if this would increase his rate of learning. What Milgram didn’t tell these people was that the shocks were fake, and that the man in the adjacent room was a confederate with Milgram, and that they were the real subjects of the experiment.

Just as they were instructed to do, these participants dutifully sent progressively severe electric shocks to the man in the adjacent room. Eventually, the man started to complain about the severity of the electric shocks, and would alert Milgram and the unwitting participant to his “heart condition.” When the participant would hesitate, Milgram would prod them to continue. The man in the adjacent room would begin to scream and bang on the wall every time a shock was administered, and he eventually fell silent. Milgram would prod the participant to continue administering electric shocks regardless.

65% of the participants continued until they had administered last and final 450 volt shock, despite repeatedly objecting to the experiment and expressing concerns over the man’s health and safety. Of those that refused to continue with the experiment, none of them stopped to check on the safety of the man in the other room, or reported Milgram to authorities. Milgram described the results in his own words: “I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not” (Wikipedia). Researchers concluded that ordinary people are capable of committing violent acts on the behalf of others, or at least look the other way, so long as the violence have been legitimized by the context (which in this case was a research study by a professional psychologist).

Researchers (Charles Sheridan and Richard King) performed a followup experiment, nearly identical to the first, but this time real electric shocks were administered to live, whimpering puppies. All 13 women who participated in this experiment followed through to the end (knowing full well that the shocks could be lethal to the puppies), even though some openly wept while they did so. In these cases, the participants felt as though they were violating their strongest moral beliefs, but nonetheless respected the researcher’s authority as valid.

In addition, it was the perceived authority of the researcher that seemed to legitimize the obedience, even when it resulted in violence. This was confirmed by followup studies that showed that obedience decreased when the experiment was performed by a shady looking researcher in a worn down apartment in a ghetto, and increased when the experiment was performed by a impressively well-groomed researcher in a legitimate looking establishment in a better part of town.

An additional followup study was performed, which is in some ways even more fascinating. A head researcher told his research team that they were going to replicate Milgram’s study and confirm the results. Just like the original experiment, the research team brought in random participants and instructed them to administer progressively severe electric shocks to a victim who was really a confederate with the researchers. What the head researcher didn’t tell his team was that the “random participants” were also confederates, and that the real subjects of the experiment were the members of the research teams themselves. As the confederate participants administered progressively severe electric shocks to the confederate victim, they began to complain of severe psychological distress, and told the research team that they felt like they were being psychological harmed by the experiment. The research team dutifully followed experimental protocol, and insisted that the participants continue the experiment, despite their severe psychological distress.

This last experiment interests me most of all. These researchers knew of the results of the Milgram experiment, and were attempting to reproduce it. And in pursuing that goal, they were willing to commit psychological harm on participants that may potentially have been just as damaging as the electric shocks administered to the victim. Why? Because the experimental procedure, as outlined by the head researcher, called for it. In other words, the same researchers that openly condemned the participant’s behavior as “blind obedience” willfully committed a form of violence themselves once that violence was legitimized by their role as a researcher. And most importantly: they didn’t even realize it.

As Milgram explained, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Wikipedia). I see this experience as more than just an exploration of obedience to brute authority, but the ability of social roles to legitimize the exercise of authority in ways that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate.

We Abuse Power When It’s Been Legitimized

The power of social roles in defining the parameters of acceptable behavior was powerfully illustrated by the famous Stanford prison experiment. Philip Zimbardo, using funds from the U.S. military, invited 75 college students to participate in a full-time, two week psychological research study. He selected 24 of the most psychologically healthy participants and assigned them to be “prison guards,” and then assigned the rest to be “inmates.” The inmates were incarcerated in a “jail” that was constructed in the basement of a campus building. The “prison guards” were instructed to take shifts and keep watch over the inmates, provide them with food and water, and supervise their daily activities.

The prison guards almost immediately began to dehumanize the inmates. Inmates planned to revolt, and the prison guards willfully invented psychological techniques to maintain control of the inmates. Inmates were forced to punish other inmates on the behalf of the guards. Some inmates were forced to sleep naked on a concrete floor as punishment for bad behavior. Meals were rationed as a punishment. Some inmates were held in solitary confinement, and severely verbally abused. Guards progressively increased physical aggression. One third of the guards began to display genuinely sadistic tendencies. Zimbardo himself began to internalize his role as the prison’s “superintendent,” and began to look the other way when guards committed unauthorized aggression against the inmates. Six days later, the experiment had to be prematurely shut down over fears about the safety of the inmates. It is reported that many of the guards were disappointed by this.

Just as students will do silly things in my class as long as my unusual instructions are legitimized by my role as a teacher, ordinary college students (who would otherwise never commit violence) behaved in severely sadistic ways once that behavior was legitimized by their role as prison guards. Many have wondered if a similar dynamic occurred at Abu Ghraib, when American military police committed unwarranted physical and psychological aggression against prisoners.

I think we need to consider the possibility that subtle dynamics of dehumanization occur every day in our domestic courts and prisons, but we don’t notice or realize it, because it has been legitimized by the social context. Who knows but if the way we perceive some of our law enforcement habits blinds us to the truth of our aggression in the same way that in some cultures legitimize marital rape? Who knows but if the way we perceive our habits as teachers blinds us to the truth of our unrighteous dominion in the same way as well? I might not go so far as to call the things our teachers do in classrooms as dehumanizing, but can you now see how our context can legitimize behavior that would otherwise be entirely unethical? Stanford and Abu Ghraib are examples of this taken so far that people immediately recognize it for what it is. But could it not often happen in subtler ways that we do not fully realize or acknowledge?

The Role of Democracy in Legitimizing Government Aggression

George Washington is thought to have said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” Although scholars dispute the true source of this quote, it is nevertheless something I believe. When governments act, they do so through force, and any government action is a form of aggression. Some government actions may very well be justified aggression, but it is aggression nonetheless. To insist that non-government interventions won’t bring about the desire results is the same thing as saying that the desired results cannot be achieved except through physical aggression and force. Again, this might be true—but we need to be honest about what it really means.

I believe that there are many ways in which we legitimize the coercive aggression of government. One of the most fascinating research studies I’ve read recently on the subject was performed by Passini and Mortelli, researchers from Italy and Switzerland. Although Milgram’s obedience studies are all but impossible to perform due to strict ethical restraints that most universities have implemented, they were able to simulate Milgram’s setup. The researchers gave participants an imaginary scenario in which they were being ordered to perform objectionable duties by their government (e.g., to arrest and jail protestors who were simply exercising their right to free speech). In one condition, the participants were led to believe that their commanding officer was Nicolae Ceausescu, a brutal dictator in Romania. In a second condition, the participants were led to believe that their commanding officer was John F. Kennedy, a freely elected and ostensibly democratic leader.

What were the results? Well, people were more willing to obey Kennedy’s abusive order than they were Ceausescu’s abusive order. According to the researchers, “the results underlined that the participants obeyed more when the request was made by an authority with a perceived legitimacy, such as President Kennedy (the democratic condition).” According to the data, the single biggest predictor of whether or not the participants would obey or disobey the order is how democratic they perceived the government they were operating under was. The researchers continue: “when the Kennedy authority was not considered democratic (perhaps by virtue of the request put forward) and it was considered to be authoritarian like Ceausescu’s, people disobeyed the request.” In other words, they controlled for a bunch of extraneous variables (to make sure it wasn’t charisma or something else), and perceived level of democracy was the single most predictive factor in the equation.

Passini and Mortelli concluded that “these results show that people effectively tend to be more supportive and more obedient when they perceive authorities as democratic, notwithstanding the legitimacy of their requests.” In addition, they explain, this leads us to wonder whether democratic systems are really immune to aggressive, violent government acts, or if they simply provide a framework that can legitimize them in the eyes of the public:

Indeed, while there is broad consensus in condemning acts of destructive obedience as negative and immoral, people sometimes approve laws that restrict individual freedoms and rights and that may lead to a curbing of civil liberties. For instance, the PATRIOT Act passed on October 26, 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks was accepted by U.S. citizens without causing too much of an outcry, even though some members of the U.S. Congress did criticize it for weakening civil liberties safeguards. Similarly, no strong dissent was voiced against the so-called “extraordinary rendition,” terms used to describe immediate arrest and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one state to another, even if these powers are illegal by definition.

In other words, “When its influence is totally perceived as being legitimate, people empower the authority to make demands and to regulate the behavior of its subordinates,” perhaps in ways that would otherwise be condemned as tyranny. Why? Because the issue here just isn’t our willingness to be obedient to legitimized authority—it’s our propensity to abuse legitimized authority. Democracy puts us all in an interesting position: we all have a little piece of authority. We are all playing a small part as mini-legislators and mini-governors, because we all have a say in what happens in government. And, as God has said, “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). And what is a vote but a little authority?

Imagine that I were to send a survey to every citizen of Elk Ridge that said, “A man waltzes into town and demands that everyone paint their house a certain color, and that the punishment for disobedience is imprisonment or a steep fine. Is this a legitimate act of government, or is this tyranny?” Almost everyone would probably reply, “tyranny!” The act described on the survey would be a naked act of aggression, an imposition from a man seeking power and control. Imagine instead that I send a survey that said, “The citizens of Elk Ridge vote, 70-30, that everyone paint their house a certain color, and the punishment for disobedience is imprisonment or a steep fine. Is this a legitimate act of government, or is this tyranny?” Because Elk Ridge is generally populated by conservative, freedom-loving people, many would probably reply that this was an act of tyranny. But many would also reply that this was a legitimate act of government. After all, it was implemented by vote! In this manner, democracy can legitimize acts of aggression and coercive power that were previously considered tyrannical.

It’s for this same reason that citizens who otherwise would vehemently condemn as theft the act of personally and forcibly taking money from their neighbor to pay for their healthcare and education will often vote to do that very thing. While none of us would feel right about personally caging our neighbors over the color of their house, or for growing certain plants in their back yard that we disapprove of, or for selling lemonade without a bureaucrat’s permission, we will often nonetheless vote to empower others to do just that. This is because we’ve been given a role—voter—that in our society legitimizes these acts of aggression in the same way that marriage once legitimized rape. And just as the term “rape” was once thought to not apply in the marriage context, the terms “theft”, “aggression,” “coercion,” and “control” are replaced by other more palatable terms. And the differences between acts of aggression with or without democracy are rehearsed in the same way men used to rehearse to themselves the difference between rape within in without marriage. And in doing this, we demonstrate that we are no better than the prison guards in Zimbardo’s experiments. We’re simply using (and abusing) our power to the extent that it has been legitimized by our social context and the roles we play within it. Our role as mini-legislators and mini-governors can unleash the mini-tyrants in us all.

There’s another psychological phenomenon at play here. Sometime during the 1950’s, Solomon Asch performed a psychological experiment in which participants were brought into a room and told that their vision was going to be tested. One group of participants were simply shown an image of a line, and asked to compare the length of the line to three other lines. Specifically, they were asked, “Of these three lines, which one is the same length?” Only 1 in 35 participants answered incorrectly.

Another group of participants sat with a number of other “participants,” and each participant in the room was asked the same question, in turn. The other participants in the room were all collaborators with the experimenter, and they each gave the same incorrect answer to the question. The real participants were always the last to answer the question, and 75% of the participants gave the same incorrect answer as the rest of the collaborators. These results are interesting enough that this experiment has been performed by psychology undergraduate students hundreds of times, and often with the same results. Even I’ve participated in this experiment as an undergrad, because, face it, it’s fun to watch obvious social conformity at work.

The issue I want to bring up is not social conformity per se. Rather, it’s a phenomenon that contributes to it—social validation. Here’s an example of social validation in action: let’s say there’s a plate of cookies on the table, and I don’t know which of my roommates they belong to. I know that some of my roommates wouldn’t care if I ate their cookies, but some would. Thus, whether or not I should eat the cookies is ambiguous. Let’s say another roommate walks into the room, and I ask, “Who’s cookies are these?” He replies, “I have no idea!” And then he takes one and eats it as he walks out the door. Suddenly, I’m no longer as concerned about eating them, and take one myself. Why? Because my roommate’s actions validate my desired actions. This has been demonstrated time and again by social psychologists: we are more likely to feel like something is ok when it has been validated by similar others. Advertisers use this to their advantage all the time.

This presents another potentially legitimizing feature of democracy: because no one gets elected without the assistance of the majority, we feel like we can support candidates who’s policies might otherwise be considered aggressive, because we know that they won’t get elected unless the majority of people agree with us. And so, by definition, our vote won’t hurt anyone until it has been validated by our peers. In that way, democracy provides a system that can socially validate our natural impulse to control others and exercise dominion over them. In summary, the social context of the voting booth (and our role as voters) legitimizes supporting acts of aggression that in other contexts would be condemned by each of us as morally reprehensible, and the democratic system can socially validate those acts as normal and acceptable.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I have no problem with having the ability to choose our leaders, and to peacefully oust them from power when they aggress against us. In other words, I have no problem with the power to vote. The problem is that we often interpret this power as a license to support violence we would otherwise deem to be inappropriate. In other words, we begin to believe that the will of the majority is sovereign and can legitimize aggression. Like we’ve done with rape (and are still working to do), we need to condemn violence and aggression regardless of the social context we are in. We need to condemn theft, regardless of whether we are thieving privately or doing so under the legitimizing influence of the ballot box. In other words, this is a cultural shift we need to initiate, not necessarily a legal one.

Be prepared for part 2 of this series!

53 thoughts on “Legitimizing Unrighteous Dominion

  1. That was brilliant LDSP. You had me thinking, “well this doesn’t apply in a democracy,” until you showed clearly how democracy can be just as nefarious, if not more so than authoritarianism.

    It was also an interesting twist, the study about the psychological harm being inflicted upon the subjects in the Milgram study. When we think of the holocaust, we usually think about the obvious abuse being heaped upon the inmates. But we forget the untold psycological harm being done to those Nazi soldiers being asked to make extraordinary moral compromises for self preservation, being tested in ways that the Milgram study says the majority of us would not pass.

  2. This is why “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John Adams)

  3. Great post because of the constant stream of concrete examples. I like also that you do not conclude that “therefore we must do away with democracy.” Rather, we must be aware of the dangers of the tool we have each been given, and wield it circumspectly.

  4. So, context matters. Well, context should matter.

    Two passages run through my mind. The first is Doctrine and Covenants Section 59 regarding the blessed who “shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few, and with revelations in their time—they that are faithful and diligent before me.”

    The second was Joseph Conrad’s description of “The sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship’s company.”

  5. “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
    This sentence describes the amoral evil of bureaucracy where employees of the state (or business) are not empowered to treat people as individuals but as cogs in a machine that must comply. When it happens at Burger King, it’s easy to never go back. When it happens with the USCIS, TSA, DMV, IRS, or on United Airlines, etc. you don’t really have much choice.

    Often all that’s injured is our pride our sense and annoyance at inane rules (Airlines, DMV, etc.) but with immigration services, and IRS, etc. real people’s lives are damaged irreparably.

    It reminds me of the acronym, POSIWID, the purpose of a system is what it does. We can’t say these systems are well-intentioned, but they fail due to ineffective leadership or bad design, and therefore we shouldn’t call them evil. If the a program or bureaucracy ruins lives, depresses spirits, or in the case of various welfare programs, reduces self-reliance, but encourages perpetual reliance on the state then the according to POSIWID, the purpose of that system is to encourage reliance on the state.

    The systems and structures we create as a society are all there for “good” reason and very few are malevolently created, but the more you interact with the spirit and try to look at things the Lord’s way you an see we are doing it all wrong and creating hundreds of systems that are far from the Lord’s way.

  6. This was really great and I see myself in some of these aspects that I hadn’t realized. That said , why are we refering to our country as a “Democracy” when we are set up as a “Republic”?

  7. Emmett, I actually never referred to our country as a democracy. I’m talking about the idea of democracy in general. It’s true we were set up as a republic. But even as a republic, we elect our leaders in a democratic process, and the same legitimizing process occurs.

  8. While I agree completely with the implication that there is an abundance of unrighteous dominion, and it is to be abhorred. The implication of your closing paragraphs is that by voting for someone who in turn, abuses their authority, it is the voter who abused that authority has holes in it. For instance, this line of reasoning would have people abstaining from a vote where the two candidates were less than ideal, even though abdicating their responsibility to vote as a citizen may well lead to the more onerous of the candidates being elected, and further unrighteous dominion and oppression.

  9. A vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. Vote for the best person, no matter the party, religion, race, or appearance. Then, you will have done your civic duty in accordance with your ideology.

    “We engage in the election the same as in any other principle; you are to vote for good men, and if you do not do this it is a sin; to vote for wicked men, it would be sin . Choose the good and refuse the evil. Men of false principles have preyed upon us like wolves upon helpless lambs… Let every man use his liberties according to the Constitution. Don’t fear man or devil; electioneer with all people, male and female, and exhort them to do the thing that is right…” (Hyrum Smith, 1844, DHC-6:323)

    “You should always place principle above party and not hesitate to change your party if it departs from the standards in which you believe or nominates candidates whom you do not consider experienced or worthy of your vote. Make up your mind calmly, devoid of political emotion. There is no one quite as politically blind as one who cannot see inconsistencies in the conduct of his own party or his own candidate. Judge the issues of the day from the standpoint of what is good for your country and not what is selfishly good for you as an individual. Both parties will attempt appeals to special classes and special groups when they ought to be thinking of what is good for the country as a whole.” BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson, October 5, 1960

  10. One question coming to mind as I read these comments: Are we falsely assuming that “dominion” is always “unrighteous?” Can there be righteous dominion, which is very powerful and controlling, but nevertheless righteous?

    Are there broad, negative aspects of human nature which must necessarily be dominated, sometimes forcefully? Are we not all like sheep, and we need a shepherd? If you have righteous leaders, who exercise no dominion upon a wicked populace, what do you get?

    I think there is a conceit here, that our leaders must somehow “stay out of our lives” and “stop controlling us,” as if turning the world over to us would solve all our problems. But if there is anyone I distrust more than my leaders, it is my trust in the American people to really be able to govern themselves.

    Mormonism is different, as it concerns spiritual preparations for an afterlife. Dominion of spiritual life is counterproductive, as it is all about the state of the heart. But dominion in physical life is perfectly natural, as it is about the controlling and harnessing of the physical world, and the manifestations of humans physical passions.

    Forcing people into an environment which limits their physical growth can actually give them more spiritual freedom, as they won’t be as distracted by their physical growth in potentially counter-productive ways. The dominating state serves to “bridle the passions,” of the collective, to use the words of Alma. Just as an individual forcibly removes himself from temptations, a state can forcibly remove collective distractions and temptations from the populace, in order that greater spiritual peace and harmony may result.

  11. Nate, the question remains: who do you trust with the legitimized power to “forcibly remove collective distractions and temptations” using the coercive power of the state?

    Is there really anyone you are willing to hand that power to? If you don’t trust the American populace to govern themselves, why would you trust them to govern others?

  12. The only righteous dominion, ie. righteous domination of another, that comes to mind would be within the pursuit of justice, such as forcing someone to pay back what they’ve stolen, and to give up an equal amount as punishment. I really can’t think any other form of righteous dominion, certainly not to “bridle the passions”.

  13. LDSP, your question “who do you trust” gets down to a root issue here. It is also one of the fundamental issues defining those who see themselves as conservative versus liberal.

    Personally, I trust leaders more than the “common man.” In my estimation, leaders are often more capable, educated, talented, and good than the “common man.” Is there evil and ambition among them? Of course. But in our country, those ambitions are bridled by the restraints inherent in our democratic republic of checks and balances.

    I would also suggest that in a pure libertarian system, other dominant forces rise up to impose their will on the people. Instead of state dominion, it is the dominion of the captains of industry. But unlike the state leaders, captains of industry are not held back or bridled by a democratic republic of checks and balances. The only check on their power is the ability for some other captain of industry to rise up and put them out of business.

    Thus a pure libertarian system mimics the feudal system of warring kings who exercise dominion over the populace, with the only restraint being enemy neighboring kingdoms. But within their kingdom there is total control, just as within a capitalist company, there is total control. The only escape hatch for the people within to abandon the kingdom and escape to a more benevolent kingdom.

  14. I’m curious if you have researched personal context as a predictor of the propensity to unrighteous dominion. I have a pet theory that we are breeding dominion propensity exponentially by neglecting studies in history, civics, literature and philosophy. It would seem that some contextual backgrounds would breed unrighteous dominion faster than others. Any thoughts? If you were to advance “freedom” curricula, what would you include?

  15. Skylar, you can’t object or refute to something simply by providing a link to a long online book. I would like to hear why you think libertarianism would not enable other forms of capitalist dominion (righteous or unrighteous), which could potentially be just as nefarious as official state forms of dominion.

  16. @Nate – The proper form of dominion is “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;” Even still, we are counciled not to be rebellious and that we are to, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)”

    I believe that there is a two pronged test. First, when we are in a position of “a little authority, as they suppose,” we need to be especially careful to avoid compulsury means. Second, when we are in a position of being under someone else’s stewardship or responsibility we are not to chafe and rebell unless it is truly necessary.

  17. @Nate: Skyler and Jared have appropriately addressed your questions and comments, and I agree with their assessments, adding that Joseph Smith taught the people correct principles and let them govern themselves. That is righteous dominion, and an excellent model of proper government and true leadership.

    However, regarding your assertion regarding leaders being “more capable, educated, talented, and good than the “common man””, I don’t think that that assertion is at all true, and that you have bought into the deceit of class distinctions that the Book of Mormon warns us about.

    While our leaders may have more information than those outside of that arena, and perhaps a talent for leadership, they are otherwise just human beings who are no more special or intelligent, and certainly no more good, than anyone else. In fact, they may even have the distinct disadvantage of dealing with the temptations inherent in being in a position of power, to which all humans beings are subject.

    Of course, I am referring to political leaders, here, our (LDS) ecclesiastical leaders are probably more obedient and humble than most people, have a talent for leadership, and a special calling for those jobs, but otherwise, are no more special than you and I, and subject to the same weaknesses and temptations.

  18. Richard, I still don’t see how my concerns have been addressed by Sklar and Jared. It’s not that I don’t think unrighteous dominion is bad. It’s that I don’t think libertarianism solves the problem of unrighteous dominion.

    Within libertarianism, dominion among groups of people is freely allowed to flourish without recourse, other than explicitly illegal activity. Libertarianism allows captains of industry to use any legal means to coerce and control their employees for whatever financial gain they wish to achieve. The only recourse for employees is to quit. But quitting is not an option for people of small means, few options, little intelligence and education, and a house full of hungry dependents. Therefore, employers are free to exploit their workers with as much pressure as it takes for them to voluntarily risk unemployment, which is in many cases, allows for an extreme amount of pressure.

    Libertarianism does not solve the “unrighteous dominion” problem. It simply transfers dominion from the state to industry. While the state has checks and balances and frequent elections to bridle it’s power, under a libertarian government, industry has no checks and balances other than those inherent in the capitalist system, survival of the fittest. In my mind, this would be much more conducive to fostering unrighteous dominion.

  19. Nate, you still have it backwards. Sure there will be crime in a free society, but under the state, crime is systemic and institutionalized. Read this: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1982

    Industry is beholden to consumers. If they mistreat their employees, their reputation will be damaged and profits will fall. The checks and balances provided by the market place are a million to 1 more efficient and fair than those provided by institutionalized coercion, ie. government. Study it, I implore you!

  20. @Nate – Your assessment of the work place is grosely distorted. Companies compete for human capital in the same way as they compete for customers. One of the most difficult things companys do is make hiring decision. If employees continue to work in a bad environment it is only because they are not taking responsibility for their own situation. As a business owneer, I know that if I find the right fit for a position that employee will produce three times what I pay him, but I also know that if I make a poor hiring decision that employee will never produce enough to make up for the cost of training them to do the job. The last thing I want to do is drive away my productive employees. Further, it isn’t exploiting my employees to pay them a wage they agree to for a task I need done. If my company doesn’t make a profit, it will go away and neither myself or my employees will make anything.

  21. Another consideration, the “business entity” under a statist regime vs. a free society will be different. “Corporations” are state-created entities, and Big Business gets all sorts of benefits and privileges c/o the state. It’s called “corporatism”. Big Business gets away with far more thanks to it’s state-granted protections than it would in a free society.

    I recommend c4ss.org on anti-corporatist (or state-capitalist) commentary. Start with this FAQ: http://c4ss.org/market-anarchism-faq

  22. Skylar, “unrighteous dominion” does not mean crime. It is completely legal to exercise unrighteous dominion among family members, at church, at the work place. It happens all day, every day. In my experience, “unrighteous dominion” at the hands of the state can’t even begin to compare to the volume and intensity unrighteous dominion exercised in families, in churches, and in the workplace.

    For the last five years, I’ve been employed by a brilliant, micro-managing control freak, who made my life an emotional hell. He runs one of the most successful businesses in my industry, and sticking around with him for 5 years gave me great experience and was a terrific resume booster.

    I’ve finally quit, now that I have enough clout in my industry to go freelance, but I have no health insurance, no benefits, and I’m living hand to mouth. I’m doing what I want to do, but I couldn’t have gotten to where I was without enduring the emotional hell I endured for five years.

    I’ve never been an employer, and I’m sure Jared is a good and kind one. But you don’t have to be nice to make a profit. On the contrary, many people, including my very successful boss will tell you that being Machiavellian is essential to competing ruthlessly in the dog eat dog world of the market.

    I’m sure many employers find that being nice can also pay off. But the market does not dictate niceness. It often dictates the opposite. When profit is the only consideration, everything else that is not efficient enough falls by the wayside, and this isn’t always a good thing.

  23. Skylar, your observations about corporatism are correct, and the inefficiencies and unfairness involved. State supported corporatism is an extension of state power, which bridles and tames the muscle of the market, trying, in it’s imperfect and inefficient way, to decrease per-capita unemployment, protect unions, subsidize industries which support political machinations, etc. It’s a dirty business, but it’s still superior to Social Darwinism in my estimation.

  24. Did anyone else find that the use of the middle name, rather than the first, gave more weight to the words of A. Legrand Richards?

    Maybe I should start signing things as “F. Alma The Pellett”. 😉

  25. Jeffrey, not surprising. I just wonder if he chose to use his middle name, rather than first, to give himself more weight, no matter how long he’s be doing it that way.

  26. Actually, I just found it amusing to have as a reference in an article on assumption of authority someone who uses an unconventional name order as an assumption of authority.

  27. Frank, if you ever get to know the guy, you’ll know that’s not the case. He’s the most soft-spoken, gentlest, unassuming man you’ll ever meet, and he personally decries the presumption of authority in the academic world. He uses his name like that just because that’s the name he goes by (when he isn’t being called by his nickname, “Buddy Richards”).

  28. People will almost always abuse the use of power when it has been legitimized by social context.

    If this is your central thesis, your data doesn’t support it. What your data shows is that social context creates power. Your inability to get strangers to stand on their tables isn’t really about your dominion being righteous. It’s about you lacking dominion.

    So I see two issues here. The first is the near truism that most power is created or sustained by a social context. Next is the (Mormon) truism that most power is abused. But the first truism by itself doesn’t prove the second.

  29. “A vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. Vote for the best person, no matter the party, religion, race, or appearance. Then, you will have done your civic duty in accordance with your ideology.”

    I don’t have a civic duty. I don’t have a right to impose my moral perspective on you or others through voting.

    “I think there is a conceit here, that our leaders must somehow “stay out of our lives” and “stop controlling us,” as if turning the world over to us would solve all our problems. But if there is anyone I distrust more than my leaders, it is my trust in the American people to really be able to govern themselves.

    Mormonism is different, as it concerns spiritual preparations for an afterlife.”

    You are right, there is conceit here.

  30. Pnoque, I spent 6 months researching and preparing for the release of this article. I’m not going to let any relevant discussions get sidelined by a commenter who has frequently derailed conversations with ad hominem attacks against philosophers who weren’t even cited in the discussion.

    We do appreciate your contributions, but we’re going to do our best to allow readers of this article and this discussion to focus on the message at hand. Thanks! =)

  31. Jack, I don’t think your conclusion follows, for the same reason the post is flawed. That dominion is used unrighteously does not entail that the dominion is itself unrighteous. In this specific case, we don’t even know that the dominion was used unrighteously, since all we have is one commenter’s complaint.

  32. For fun, I thought I’d point out a logical paradox suggested by the article.

    Consider that the authority of the pedagogue is just if used for instructional purposes and not arbitrarily. So if the pedagogue tells his students to take off their shoes and stand on their desks for no particular reason, the pedagogue is abusing his power. But if the pedagogue then points out that he abused his power to his students as an object lesson in the dangers of assuming that socially legitimate authority is always just, then the exercise had a valid instructional purpose. Therefore the pedagogue did not abuse his power. But if he did not abuse his power, the exercise was just. If the exercise was just, it does not illustrate the dangers of arbitrary use of power. Therefore it serves no instructional purpose, and is injust. Etc.

  33. Interesting thoughts, Adam. Again, I would like to point out that the initial example was not presented as an abuse of authority. It was presented as an initial example of how context changes what we consider to be appropriate behavior. The LATER examples (the ones cited by A. Legrand Richards) are examples of abuse of the perceived authority of the teacher.

  34. Adam, you have said it better than I did. There is no question that the post is flawed.

    In this case we can conclude only 1)that dominion was used, and 2)Jeffrey thinks “people will almost always abuse the use of power when it has been legitimized by social context”. It is now up to him to explain why that axiom does not apply to him in this context.

    My point is that the social context the post assumes wasn’t clear to at least one commenter. One person’s righteous dominion is another person’s tyranny. This post sheds no light whatsoever on the difference.

  35. Jack,
    that’s good logic. But remember that this is the first in a two-part series. Maybe the reason we don’t see a coherent point in this post is because its just laying the groundwork for the next post.

  36. Into the fray! Nate, when you say, “But the market does not dictate niceness. It often dictates the opposite. When profit is the only consideration…” I think you’re missing the point of “the market”. In even a (mostly) free market, the market is groups of people making individual buying decisions. It’s the individuals who apparently value profit first and niceness ranks lower on the list. Don’t believe me? Well, if you buy from a place that offers a cheaper price but worse service than you’ve demonstrated you value your personal profit first and niceness last.

    Even your job example seems to work against you. You personally endured what you described as hell, because it advanced your career. So your career was more important than niceness of your boss, for at least a time. It was your decision. In a purely statist environment, of course, you’d have no ability to leave and start freelancing. You may say, you had no choice because market conditions seemed to have imposed that you work for the devil-of-a-boss, but that’s a figment of your imagination. There are billions of people throughout history who have lived good lives without working for your devil of a boss. You were either giving up a bit of your agency and just going with the flow being an agent who was acted upon and no one who acts, or you decided that the things you gained from working where you did (which included perhaps residency in a certain area of the country, work in a field you prefer, insurance, wages, resume experience, etc. etc.) were all more valuable to working for a nice guy.

    I think the non-obvious aspects of our “purchasing” decisions (purchasing used very broadly…you purchased that job and its perks with your time and talents) are very important to consider in an evaluation of free market principles. How this relates to unrighteous dominion has me agreeing that in free(r) markets (from education to employment, etc) you do not do away with unrighteous dominion, but you twist the nature of the transaction in favor of individual liberty, which ultimately leaves people responsible for their own decisions and potentially at the mercy of non-nice, but legally acting, people. But again, this would mostly be because either because the non-nice person is hiding his true nature from a theoretical “nice demanding” market, or that the many individuals rank niceness last in terms of their purchasing decisions.

  37. And to consider the argument of the original post even further, when considering the “market” I suppose one could construct an argument of money itself being the “authority” that seemingly imposes unrighteous dominion on us. We live in an nation/era where we feel we “must” endure really terrible circumstances for lack of or in pursuit of money. It wasn’t always so, especially not to the degree that a certain authorized form of money is required for everything.

    Entering Ron Paul territory…So could it be that the very nature of a Federal Reserve managed and enforced fiat currency is the ultimate example of unrighteous dominion? In a perversion of the true meaning of power and authority from God’s perspective, a federal reserve bank note seems to have become the ultimate level of authority that hangs over all our heads.

  38. Happy New Year chris. In response, I just want to say that you make good points about the market being controlled by the consumer. This is true. I believe you are trying to argue that employers in a free market can’t really exercise unrighteous dominion, because we are always at liberty to quit and get another job.

    If by unrighteous dominion, we mean total control, then yes, you are right. But I think in the mind of Joseph Smith, unrighteous dominion extends to mere influence, not just total dominion. When we seek to exercise compulsion or force in any degree, that is the kind of dominion Joseph Smith speaks of. So my boss was exercising unrighteous dominion, because he was using his influence to coerce me as much as possible, while restraining himself enough so that he wouldn’t drive me from the company completely. I believe it is this kind of indirect control and compulsion that Joseph Smith was warning about. And he was warning us as individuals not to inflict it on others. He was not speaking of the state.

    The kind of dominion LDSP warns about, is state dominion, which is total control. There is no escape, we must obey the law or we are thrown in jail. But this kind of dominion is entirely different from the kind of dominion Joseph Smith warned about. This is impersonal dominion. Sets of arbitrary bureaucratic laws which curtail personal freedom. This kind of dominion is merely environmental, not personal. It is like having a 100 square foot home, and not enough room to fit all of our furniture in it. The home curtails our freedom to have as much furniture as we want, but it does not dominate, control, or manipulate us. It simply exists as part of the basic factors and limitations of our existence. It is not “unrighteous dominion.”

    If the homeowner wishes to fit more furniture into his house, he must knock down some walls and build a new addition. Likewise, if the people find the state’s laws too restricting, they must elect leaders to change the laws to give more freedom. But those who enforce existing laws cannot be charged with unrighteous dominion, nor those who seek to pass additional laws which the people elected them to pass.

    Governments exist to provide a framework for the best possible existence for the populace, as it is imperfectly defined and implemented. That framework may evolve into something unwise, ineffective, counter-productive, etc., but that does not mean that it is “unrighteous dominion” in the spirit of Joseph Smith’s use of the term.

  39. And to try to swing this discussion back to LDSP’s post, I don’t think that LDSP is referring to the dominion of specific government laws or taxes, which are subject to physical enforcement. The studies cited seem to suggest that unrighteous dominion as exercised by the state, is more about the subtle influences the state exercises indirectly, through the appearance of authority and legitimacy. This would extend to government propaganda, media manipulation, political campaigning, mudslinging and sound-biting.

    Correct me if I’m wrong LDSP, but the post was really not a libertarian argument against state dominion and enforcement, but rather about the subtle power of appearances, cultural attitudes, and propaganda, which then go into shaping laws and policies.

    Here again, I’m a big fan of propaganda, and other forms of subtle influence. I don’t consider it always “unrighteous,” but rather, necessary, because we are idiots, and we need strong leaders to spoon feed us easily digestible sound-bites and emotional manipulation. It could be righteous manipulation, or unrighteous manipulation. But the greatest lesson I learn from the Milgram study, is that human beings are truly like sheep, and that we desperately NEED a shepherd. We need to be manipulated, but hopefully, by good and well-intended leaders.

  40. Nate, LDSP can of course speak for himself, but speaking for myself one of the lessons I have learned is that unrighteous dominion extends to many spheres. It can happen in a household where a husband or wife is emotional abusive. It can happen in a boss-employee relationship. But I do think that LDSP is talking about societal structures as well. When I think of a good leader, I think of King Benjamin. He worked alongside the people. He did not enrich himself. He followed Christ. He was a good example. The people voluntarily followed him. But he mostly led by example, meaning he left people alone to live their lives. No secret police. No nanny state involved in peoples’ personal lives. (This is speculation, but I think accurate speculation based on the text). The historical evidence indicates Joseph Smith also led this way, ie, he led by example and let people govern themselves for the most part. As long as they were not open apostates he mostly left people alone except to call them on missions, give them callings, set up home teaching, etc.

    So, how should this principle work in a constitutional republic? I think the evidence is clear: follow the intent of the Constitution, which was to set up a very small federal government, pass most actual governance to states and localities and the people (look at the 9th and 10th amendments). Unrighteous dominion takes place when we start thinking that a central government with “enlightened” leaders can wisely tell everybody what to do with their lives. The opposite is exactly true: righteous dominion takes place when leaders concentrate on following the Constitution and keeping out of the lives of other people and allowing people to govern themselves (as long as they do not physically harm others).

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