screen-capture-8Legitimizing Unrighteous Dominion

Originally posted at

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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!