The Right to Unrighteous Dominion

November 2, 2007 | 28 comments

Is it possible for someone not in a position of authority to practice unrighteous dominion?

I say ‘yes.’ In a modern world, you can exercise your rights and your prerogatives in a way that is tantamount to unrighteous dominion. Rights are powers. To have a right that others are legally, practically, or morally bound to recognize is to have some authority over them in practical terms, whether we think of it as authority or not. Democracy and equality don’t abolish authority. They distribute it.

Note: I think this only applies to rights that one can choose to waive.

28 Responses to The Right to Unrighteous Dominion

  1. Y Stephenson on November 2, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Yes, when a person uses one thing the purpose of which is something else that is tyrany and unrighteous dominion. Anytime a person sets himsel/herself up as though he/she were a judge and demands that others concede to his/her wishes that is unrightous dominion. Kids who have no authority at all do it all the time beginning when they about two years old.

  2. MikeInWeHo on November 2, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    The “Living In An Unjust State” thread is closed and this one suddenly appears. Am I the only one seeing a theme here? (Must…not…take…bait……)

    But to answer your question Adam, I would have to say no. Not unless you define “dominion” so broadly that it becomes almost meaningless. For example, millions of Americans exercised their right to vote for an administration that I am legally bound to support with my tax dollars despite my profound moral opposition. Does this mean the U.S. electorate has exercised “unrighteous dominion” over me?

  3. MLU on November 2, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    I suppose the “unrighteous” part of that phrase refers to what is not morally right. I take it to refer to rights that God has granted to each individual as part of his or her agency.

    Then these moral rights would be part of a different system than legal rights and perhaps incommensurable.

    However, I rather imagine that a Nazi doctor exercising his state-granted rights to conduct medical research by plunging my body into ice water and measuring my physiological responses as I died was exercising unrighteous dominion.

    But I only wonder about Native Americans opening state-sponsored education workshops in Montana by praying to their ancestors because the state Constitution grants them the right to have their culture preserved by the public education system. . .

  4. Ray on November 3, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Only if the person over whom there is no authority allows the unrighteous dominion. There are instances of unrighteous domination being exercised by use of brute force, but I don’t think those examples of physical domination fit what you appear to be addressing with your question about dominion.

  5. Jack on November 3, 2007 at 1:26 am

    Exercizing compulsion on others is bad only when it is done unrighteously.

  6. MLU on November 3, 2007 at 1:30 am

    I think every time a person uses tax generated revenue wantonly and wastefully–taking my substance for vain purposes–unrighteous dominion is being exercised.

  7. Ray on November 3, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Jack, can it be done in the types of situations that Adam is asking about here?

  8. Jack on November 3, 2007 at 10:28 am


    I have a fun (for me) habit of rushing in the back door with my comments. Yes, I believe it can be done in any kind of situation. But as the scriptures seem to suggest — that the unrighteous exercize of compulsion on others is the root problem, we can probably assume the inverse to be true — that there are instances when one may righteously compel another.

    And so, in answer to Mike’s comment(#2), for example, I would say yes(!) individual voters may exercize unrighteous dominion over others if they vote in any degree of unrighteousness. However, if their voting is morally scrupulous then, however badly others may feel about X politician winning the campaign, I don’t think the honest supporters of said politician will have exercized unrighteous dominion.

    Now, perhaps, there may have been a dishonest media campaign on the part of X politician which had the effect of clouding the judgment of his/her honest supporters. If so, then the blame is laid at the feet of those who knowingly promoted lies in order to win the hearts of the honest.

    And so it goes from black and white to polka dots to speckles to gray.

  9. Jeremy Gayed on November 3, 2007 at 10:56 am

    I think the answer is yes, and I’ve seen the principle in action between teachers and students, and also, more seriously, between employers and employees. As Adam noted, power isn’t merely formal. The person for whom I work has absolute power to fire me at will, and thus deprive my wife and two children of sustenance. He has a greater practical ability to coerce me than the government, whose coercive means are mostly hemmed in by process and procedure. If my employer–to pick a completely random example–asked me to accompany him to a trial in another state for two weeks on threat of being fired, leaving my wife alone with an 18-month old and and a sickly newborn in a strange city where we have no friends, family, or support, he would certainly be attempting to practice unrighteous dominion.

  10. Adam Greenwood on November 3, 2007 at 10:55 am

    I shouldn’t have to point this out, but no, I don’t think that every exercise of a right, including the right to vote, is an exercise in unrighteous dominion. I believe that “righteous dominion” is possible, although we won’t see pure righteous dominion outside of heaven.

    Unrighteous dominion means having power and using it for self-glorification, to gratify one’s pride or vain ambition, to cover one’s sins, to revenge oneself, and so on. In traditional societies and in modern autocracies de facto rights and power are largely confined to the rulers so the opportunities for unrighteous dominion are largely theirs. In a democracy the People have more power so collective unrighteous dominion becomes more possible and in a liberal democracy individuals have more power vis-a-vis the state and each other so individual unrighteous dominion becomes much more possible, especially when we tell ourselves that the concept of unrighteous dominion does not apply to us.

  11. Jeremy Gayed on November 3, 2007 at 11:01 am

    To clarify, I think what makes it unrighteous dominion isn’t the fact that he would force me to make a morally problematic choice; it’s the fact that he has the practical ability and technical right to put me in that position.

  12. TMD on November 3, 2007 at 11:02 am

    Of course this is possible, it happens all the time. I can think of three big ways in which it happens–1, when someone uses guilt as a manipulative device on someone else, 2, when someone uses harrassment and inconveinence in an effort to get someone else to do something, and 3, when someone uses their reputation or other personal characteristics as a means of exerting pressure outside of normal channels or hierarchies.

    And we certainly see it in the church, all the time. The person who tries to guilt the bishop into instituting their pet paradigm or project in the ward against what he feels is revelation or direction from above, or monopolizes his time? Unrighteous domination. The person who calls at all hours, or spreads rumors, or protests aggressively? Unrighteous domination. The person who, because they are an academic or a professional, believes that their voice and ideas are better or more important or more correct than everyone else’s in the ward, and tries to make them accept them? Unrighteous domination.

  13. TMD on November 3, 2007 at 11:04 am

    I might also add, the person who tries to use the media and public or political pressure to change a church decision, when the church is by its own policies (and probably the law) unable to respond is also engaging in unrighteous domination.

  14. Adam Greenwood on November 3, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Gayed, I should probably explain the background of this post a little.

    There’s a famous passage in the Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of modern Mormon scripture) that discusses the priesthood, which Mormons in part think of as formal, hierarchical religous authority. That passage warns against abuse of that authority:
    It has commonly been applied to all kinds of formal, hierarchical authority. Your boss, for instance, is clearly in a position to exercise unrighteous dominion.

    But we don’t think of employees as being in that position and I’m arguing they can be. Discrimination laws give employees a power that they can abuse. Exceptional people with valuable skills in conditions of high employment might also have a power they could abuse; in union shops employees also have a power they can abuse.

    Most of us aren’t in positions that our society generally recognizes as one’s of power and authority so we make the old mistake of thinking there can’t be beams in our eyes.

  15. Lupita on November 3, 2007 at 11:23 am

    “whether we think of it as authority or not”
    I think this part is key. Authority is often ambiguous. In many professional situations, one of the easiest ways to mark yourself as undesirable is to treat the office staff as merely office staff. Anyone who thinks that the support staff doesn’t have significant say in what transpires is naive.
    I can’t think of many, if any, situations completely immune to unrighteous dominion.

  16. Adam Greenwood on November 3, 2007 at 11:24 am

    I’m with you, but I might disagree with some of your examples. For example, an academic who tries to claim religious authority is in the wrong, but he can’t exercise unrighteous dominion unless people actually listen to him. Trying to get authority isn’t the same as exercising it wrongly. Also I’d like to distinguish between two senses of unrighteous dominion. There’s dominion that’s per se unrighteous because a person shouldn’t have that power, and there’s power that is all right to have but that is being abused. I think the unrighteous dominion scriptures are more talking about the latter.

  17. Adam Greenwood on November 3, 2007 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, Lupita, that’s what I’m getting at.

  18. TMD on November 3, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Adam, I think you are being a bit too legalistic in your approach–looking for rights that can be abused. Much unrighteous domination of those who are in some sense higher up in a hierarchy comes through social phenomena, or through inconvienences that are at best minimally justiciable. Hence, tools like humiliation, shunning, shaming, rumor mongering, poking fun, etc. are the most likely implements of unrighteous domination, and are protected by things like general freedoms of speech (and the fact that many areas of interaction are essentialy un-policeable).

  19. Jeremy Gayed on November 3, 2007 at 11:29 am


    Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate the fact that, as a non-mormon outsider, the participants in this site have not only the patience to allow me to participate, but the grace to instruct me on relevant context. It speaks to a unique (for the internet) culture here, and one you all should be proud of.

    In light of the clarification, my example isn’t helpful, but the principles remain the same, and Adam’s original point makes lot of logical sense. The common ground between priest, employer, employee with a potential discrimination claim or a one of a kind skill set, and even the extremely influential friend, is that they all have the capability to coerce those around them. As Adam observed, power doesn’t have to be formalized to exist in fact.

    I think the Bible speaks to this: “It were well for him if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Luke 17:2

  20. TMD on November 3, 2007 at 11:35 am

    Sorry, hit post too early…

    The other sense in which I think you’re being too legalistic is to look at dominion solely in terms of ability to make decisions. (Hence, ‘rights and perogatives.’) I think influence over decisions (‘power’) is of the same species–and that people who try to influence decisions by using social power and the power to inconveinence can be, depending on the norms of an institution, be engaging in a species of unrighteous dominion.

  21. Ray on November 3, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    How about the threat of a lawsuit in order to keep someone from prohibiting what the threatener wants to do. I see it all the time in education, but I also see it in many other areas. It’s gotten so bad that we even hear of kids using it against their parents in cases like non-abusive discipline or curfews.

  22. MikeInWeHo on November 3, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    “I can’t think of many, if any, situations completely immune to unrighteous dominion.”

    That’s true only if you define the concept so broadly as to render in almost meaningless, but I don’t see that in the D&C 121 quote which seems linked to the concept of individual hierarchical authority. My management assistant at work does not have authority over me and if he guilts me into doing something I wouldn’t otherwise do, he’s not exercising unrighteous dominion over me. That’s me being dumb. Likewise if my daughter manipulates me into giving permission for something I should not give. She’s not exercising unrighteous dominion.

    And while it’s true that in a liberal democracy the electorate holds the ultimate power over the law and thus exercises collective authority over each individual, I don’t see the connection to this particular concept.

    The idea that society can exercise unrighteous dominion is like asserting that Matthew 7:1 means we should not have courts.

  23. East Coast on November 3, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    A nearby community has a rock crushing company. The company is trying to expand. The neighbors oppose it. The rock crushing company sues the protesters. The case is thrown out of court. (True example.)

    I forget the name of this type of lawsuit. I’m sure some of you could come up with it.

    The rock crushing company has put the neighbors through huge amounts of stress, and significant time and money. Sure they had the right to sue. They had no authority over the neighbors but they had power by using the court system. Most of us would label this as an unethical exercise of legal rights as Americans, and in the Mormon culture we could also call it “unrighteous dominion.”

  24. Nate W. on November 3, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    No we can’t call it that., at least not without ignoring the original context of the concept. D&C 121:39:

    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.

    Exercise of a right is not authority over others. It may be bad for other reasons, but it is not unrighteous dominion. Likewise, there is no such thing as righteous dominion, if by that you mean compelling others to do right. The scriptures teach us that the concept of unrighteous dominion refers to methods of exercising authority, not the results. D&C 121:41-42:

    No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

    In fact, as these scriptures remind us, the concept of unrighteous dominion is limited to the misuse of priesthood authority. Trying to apply the standards of the use of God’s authority to standards of secular authority may work by analogy sometimes, but it must be recognized as stretching the original concept and so of limited utility.

  25. nameroo on November 3, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    It is called a \”SLAPP\” lawsuit. I don\’t recall right offhand what the acronym stands for….

  26. Ivan Wolfe on November 3, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation

  27. Jack on November 3, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    One might supplant Section 121 with the Sermon on the Mount and get the same results by following it’s directives. And the Sermon on the Mount seems to apply to all irrespective of position or rank.

  28. MLU on November 4, 2007 at 3:38 pm


    If the law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, I rather think we are invited to expand our understanding of true principles rather than to insist they are “limited” to the particular instances when they were taught.

    Although maybe outside the covenant nothing is unrighteous, if where there is no law there is no judgment.


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