Power exchange and autonomy

I often get questions that prompt interesting conversations, and this week, I’d like to share a recent conundrum : How does political engagement work in a power exchange relationship? Can a Dom/me tell a sub how to vote?

This is actually a complex issue, and I apologize in advance for sounding like a Philosopher. (But think about the site you’re visiting.)

First, a little clarification. Power exchange covers a lot of territory, from the sub who agrees to allow a Dom/me to have authority over specific zones of submission during a scene or playtime, all the way to 24/7 consensual slavery. For clarity, I’ll start with the extreme end of the spectrum: slavery.

An Owner/property (O/p) relationship, as the terms suggest, is a consensual arrangement in which one party owns the other. O/p relationships can take many forms, but let’s consider the Master/slave variation. Typically, as property, the slave is wholly dedicated to the service of the Master, in all areas of life, 24/7. What does this imply about political engagement?

On the one hand, the concept of ownership seems to require the slave to be an extension of the Master’s will, and hence the Master would have the right to dictate to a slave whether and how to vote. On the other hand, among the fundamental principles of representative democracy, we find a “one person, one vote” principle that requires each voter to exercise individual autonomy.

Are these principles inconsistent? If the Master commands the slave to vote in a certain way, isn’t the Master simply voting twice, since it is the Master’s autonomy that is expressed in the votes? Or is it the case that the slave is exercising autonomy in voting the way the Master dictates, since the slave has, by prior agreement, subsumed his or her autonomy under the Master’s will? Does this prior exercise of autonomy satisfy principles like “one person, one vote”?

In practical philosophy, reflection on analogous situations often sheds light. Let’s consider two situations.

Suppose I join a political party: Have I thereby embraced an obligation to fellow party members to vote within the parameters endorsed by the party? It is certainly true that the party cannot enforce a particular vote while I’m in the voting booth, but it does seem plausible that the party has a right to question whether I “belong” to the party if I vote against it. Indeed, I may well question the genuineness of my membership, if I am inclined to vote against “my” party. We can, without much difficulty, imagine a situation in which a contrary vote  leads to being removed as a member of the party.

Is membership in a political party sufficiently analogous to an O/p relationship to offer guidance? This analogy suggests that the Master has some grounds to expect loyalty from the slave in political and other engagements in the world, and the ultimate price for disloyalty would be an end to the agreement.

Now consider a situation in which a Master commands a slave to lie. Assuming that lying in this situation is morally suspect, does the slave bear any moral responsibility for lying? Although a slave may be strongly inclined to obey the Master,  it seems that the lying slave is nevertheless morally accountable for lying. (This seems to be the case even if the Master is even more accountable for issuing such a command than the slave is for obeying it.) This situation suggests that, in consensual slavery, the slave seems to retain autonomy in situations that demand moral accountability.

The situation above does not involve legal accountability, which is dependent on the legal system in which the parties are embedded. In our current legal framework, a slave who is commanded to, let’s say, shoplift is not excused from legal accountability, even if the slave appeals to a prior commitment to be owned.  I take it for granted that there is a relevant philosophical difference between moral and legal accountability — but that’s another story. My point is that the consensual slave seems to retain moral accountability, and moral accountability requires autonomy, from which it follows that the consensual slave retains autonomy in at least some engagements.

These analogies reveal some of the complexity of this question about voting. Now, let me sketch a partial response. Consensual slavery is not typically a “one-time” irrevocable agreement. The consensual slave may well be forced to submit to the Master’s will while a slave, but a consensual slave reserves the right to stop being a slave. If a slave retains the right to end the agreement, then in some sense, the slave is continually renewing the consent, by continuing to live as a slave. This means that the slave’s autonomy as a person is engaged throughout the relationship, in spite of (or, as a slave might say, because of) being owned as property. This deserves much more discussion than I can give it here, but I would defend this line of thought as a sketch of a philosophical account of consensual slavery.

(There are instances of “consensual nonconsent,” but, at least in my experience, these are well-defined periods of nonconsent (e.g., a 72-hour period). Although consensual nonconsent does pose interesting questions about the O/p relationship, I won’t consider it here.)

This analysis of consensual slavery opens the door to an understanding of the slave’s moral accountability, which in turn could shed light on the question of voting. If the consensual slave is continually exercising autonomy in remaining in the agreement, then autonomy is continually “available” as the basis for engagement in situations that require autonomy, such as moral accountability. This might suggest that a slave can both exercise autonomy and be owned in certain situations, like voting.

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