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Intimacy, Autonomy and (Non) Domination

Journal of Applied Philosophy

Published online on


Accounts of autonomy which acknowledge the importance of non‐domination – that is, of being structurally protected against arbitrary interference with one's life – face an apparent problem with regards to intimate relationships (whether romantic or otherwise). By their very nature, such relations open us up to psychological and material suffering that would not be possible absent the particular relationship; even worse, from the non‐domination point of view, is that this vulnerability seems to be structural in a way exactly analogous to (for example) workplace or social domination. If being powerless to prevent an employer causing me harm constitutes domination at work, then what relevant differences can support the intuition that being powerless to prevent my partner causing me comparable pain is not autonomy‐hostile? I argue for the reassuring view that the obligations and possibility of pain arising from such relations aren't necessarily dominating; they would be so only if we believed that any obligation we have not explicitly agreed to is a restriction on our autonomy, and that is false. I conclude with a note of caution: even though intimate relations aren't necessarily dominating, they will often be contingently so if they take place in a wider social context of domination – such as that which we currently inhabit.