Economic sanctions have been subject to extensive criticism. They are often seen as indiscriminate, intending the harms that they inflict, and using the suffering of the innocent as a means to enact policy change. Indeed, some reject outright the permissibility of economic sanctions. By contrast, in this essay, I defend the case for economic sanctions. I argue that sanctions are not necessarily morally problematic and, in doing so, argue that sanctions are less morally problematic than is often claimed. I go on to argue that sanctions may sometimes be morally preferable to the leading alternatives and, in particular, to wars and doing nothing. This is in part because sanctions are more likely to distribute fairly the currently inevitable harms to innocents of tackling aggression and mass atrocities. In the final part of the essay, I draw on this point to argue more generally that that we should often favor a “Harm-Distribution Approach” in the ethics of war and peace.
1 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001).
2 Ki-moon, Ban, Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response, UN doc A/66/874 (2012).
3 See, for instance, Pape, Robert, “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” International Security 22, no. 2 (1997): 90–136.
4 See, for instance, Pusken, Dursun, “Better or Worse? The Effect of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights,” Journal of Peace Research 46, no. 1 (2009): 59–77.
5 Gordon, Joy, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 87.
6 See, for instance, Fisher, David, Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-First Century? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 73.
7 The main discussions of the morality of sanctions include Damrosch, Lori Fisler, “The Collective Enforcement of International Norms Through Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 8, no. 1 (1994): 59–75 ; Gordon, Joy, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 13, no. 1 (1999): 123–42; Gordon, Joy, “Economic Sanctions, Just War Doctrine, and the ‘Fearful Spectacle of the Civilian Dead’,” Crosscurrents 49, no. 3 (1999): 387–400 ; Gordon, Joy, “Smart Sanctions Revisited,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (2011): 315–35; Lopez, George A., “More Ethical than Not: Sanctions as Surgical Tools: Response to ‘A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy’,” Ethics & International Affairs 13, no. 1 (1999): 143–48; Pierce, Albert, “Just War Principles and Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 10, no. 1 (1996): 99–113 ; and Winkler, Adam, “Just Sanctions,” Human Rights Quarterly 21, no. 1 (1999): 133–55.
8 See, for example, Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy”; Gordon “Economic Sanctions, Just War Doctrine”; McGee, Robert W., “The Ethics of Economic Sanctions,” Economic Affairs 23, no. 4 (2003): 41–45.
9 See, for instance, Babic, Jovan and Jokic, Aleksandar, “The Ethics of International Sanctions: The Case of Yugoslavia,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 24, no. 1 (2000): 87–101 ; Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy.”
10 See, for instance, Gordon, “Smart Sanctions Revisited”; Pierce, “Just War Principles”; Winkler, “Just Sanctions.”
11 This is particularly the case if one holds a form of moderate instrumentalism for assessing the justifiability of responses to the mass violation of human rights, according to which consequences carry great moral weight in such circumstances. I defend such moderate instrumentalism in Pattison, James, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
12 See Baldwin, David A., “The Sanctions Debate and the Logic of Choice,” International Security 24, no. 3 (1999): 80–107.
13 Those who consider some of the moral case for the symbolic import of sanctions include Beversluis, Eric H., “On Shunning Undesirable Regimes: Ethics and Economic Sanctions,” Public Affairs Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1989): 15–25 and Damrosch, “The Collective Enforcement.”
14 See, for instance, Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy”; Gordon, “Economic Sanctions, Just War Doctrine”; Gordon, Joy, “Reply to George A. Lopez’s ‘More Ethical Than Not’,” Ethics & International Affairs 13, no. 1 (1999): 149–50; McGee, “The Ethics of Economic Sanctions.”
15 Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy,” 124.
16 See Babic and Jokic, “The Ethics of International Sanctions”; Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy,” 126; Meisels, Tamar, “Economic Warfare: The Case of Gaza,” Journal of Military Ethics 10, no. 2 (2011): 94–109 , at 103. On the wrongness of sieges and blockades, see, for instance, Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 160–75.
17 See, most notably, McMahan, Jeff, Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009).
18 Gordon, “Smart Sanctions Revisited”; Rudolf, Peter, “Power without Principle: Ethical Problems of International Economic Sanctions,” Law and State 57 (1998): 9–21 , at 17.
19 Gordon, “Smart Sanctions Revisited,” 332.
20 Ibid., 325.
21 Damrosch, “The Collective Enforcement,” 69.
22 Gordon, “Smart Sanctions Revisited,” 326. For instance, the sanctions on the Gaddafi regime after the Lockerbie Bombing were estimated to cost Libya $18 billion in lost revenue. Popovoski, Vessilin, “Fighting the Colonel: Sanctions and the Use of Force,” Jindal Journal of International Affairs 1, no. 1 (2011): 148–61, at 152.
23 I make this point in more detail than is possible here in Pattison, James, “Justa Piratica: The Ethics of Piracy,” Review of International Studies 40, no. 4 (2014), 631–56. Also see Øverland, Gerhard, “602 and One Dead: On Contribution to Global Poverty and Liability to Defensive Force,” European Journal of Philosophy 21, no. 2 (2013): 279–99.
24 In a similar vein, McMahan notes, in a brief remark on economic sanctions in Killing in War, that there can be forms of liability that “fall well short of liability to military attack” and that many adult civilians may have had enough of a role in injustice to have no valid complaint about being subject to the hardship of economic sanctions, 218.
25 See, for instance, Gordon “Economic Sanctions, Just War Doctrine,” as well as Thomas, Claire, “Civilian Starvation: A Just Tactic of War?” Journal of Military Ethics 4, no. 2 (2005): 108–118 , at 111.
26 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 153.
27 For more in-depth critiques than possible here, see Bennett, Jonathan, The Act Itself (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 195–224 and McIntyre, Alison, “Doing Away with Double Effect,” Ethics 111, no. 2 (2001): 219–55.
28 See, instead, Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention, 154–68. Pattison, James, The Morality of Private War: The Challenge of Private Military and Security Companies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 38–41 , 58.
29 To be sure, I accept that intentions may be instrumentally important. Pattison, The Morality of Private War, 58, 103–6.
30 A similar point is made by McIntyre, “Doing Away,” 226.
31 See, for example, Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy”; Pierce, “Just War Principles,” 110.
32 Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy,” 124. To be clear, Gordon thinks that this objection has a limited scope, not applying when the objective is the prevention of the deaths of innocents. This caveat takes almost all of the force out of her objection. In cases when the deaths of innocents are not at stake the action would already typically be ruled out by proportionality — the need to do more harm than good (it would be hard to achieve this when harming innocents without helping another set of innocents).
33 Damrosch, “The Collective Enforcement,” 73.
34 Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy,” 130. The consent to the sanctions imposed on South Africa during apartheid is sometimes claimed to be an exception, although it would clearly fall short of more demanding notions of consent.
35 Lopez, “More Ethical than Not,” 147.
36 Ibid., 147. Emphasis in original.
37 Hagopian, Amy and Barker, Kathy, “Should We End Military Recruiting in High Schools as a Matter of Child Protection and Public Health?” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 1 (2011): 19–23 ; Korb, Lawrence and Duggan, Sean, “An All-Volunteer Army? Recruitment and its Problems,” Political Science & Politics 40, no. 3 (2007): 467–71.
38 McMahan, Jeff, “The Just Distribution of Harm Between Combatants and Noncombatants” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38, no. 4 (2010): 342–79. I consider (and respond to) McMahan’s arguments in more detail in Pattison, James, “Bombing the Beneficiaries: The Distribution of the Costs of the Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention,” in Scheid, Don, ed., The Ethics of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 113–30.
39 For reasons of space, this section cannot consider alternative distributions, such as a prioritarian or sufficientarian distribution.
40 The internal costs of sanctions are detailed in Doxey, Margaret P., International Sanctions in Contemporary Perspective, 2nd ed. (London: MacMillan, 1996), 66–70.
41 Of course, in the case of doing nothing, there are no direct internal costs, but there may be indirect costs, such as a loss of international reputation.
42 I defend this point further in Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention.
43 My rejection of consent above was largely that it is not likely to be free in the context of sanctions; for the sake of making the point clearly, I assume that it is in this example.
44 McMahan holds that “a lesser-evil infliction for the infliction of harm requires that the harm inflicted be substantially less than that which is prevented,” McMahan, Jeff, “What Rights May be Defended by Means of War?” in Fabre, Cecile and Lazar, Seth, eds., The Morality of Defensive War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 115–56, at 138, emphasis in original. Elsewhere, he argues that the lesser-evil justification for killing innocents is restricted to cases to avoid an outcome that would be “very significantly worse.” See “The Morality and the Law of War,” in Rodin, David and Shue, Henry, Just and Unjust Warriors: The Moral and Legal Status of Soldiers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008), 19–43 , at 23. David Rodin holds that the bar for lesser-evil justifications to apply for both intended and unintended harms is extremely high; he holds that intended harms are “never or almost never permitted” and that the prohibition on collateral killing should be much closer to the prohibition on intentional killing. See Rodin, “Justifying Harm,” Ethics 122, no. 1 (2011): 74–110, at 108.
45 Rodin’s account of lesser-evil justifications (in “Justifying Harm”) is a notable exception; he holds that lesser-evil justifications can involve more than simply act-utilitarian calculations; they can be concerned with maximizing various states of affairs. He does not, however, include distributive concerns in his list of relevant factors.
46 The Harm-Distribution Approach can leave room for some agent-relative considerations. For instance, one can accept this approach while maintaining that the difference between doing and allowing still matters to some extent. That is, it is better not to redistribute harms in more marginal cases, since one will be doing harm when redistributing.
47 See, for instance, Caney, Simon, “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility and Climate Change,” Leiden Journal of International Law 18, no. 4 (2005): 747–75; Page, Edward, “Distributing the Burdens of Climate Change,” Environmental Politics 17, no. 4 (2008): 556–75; Shue, Henry, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” International Affairs 75, no. 3 (1999): 531–45.
48 This is McMahan’s favored option. He argues that we need a new principle “governing the just distribution of harm between combatants and noncombatants” (“The Just Distribution of Harm,” 379).
* This essay was written while holding a research fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for the project, “The Ethics of the Alternatives to War” (AH/L003783/1). I would like to thank the AHRC for their support. Earlier versions of the essay were presented at the annual conferences of the British International Studies Association and the Association of Legal and Social Philosophy in June 2014. I would like to thank the participants for their helpful comments and questions. I would also like to thank Elizabeth Ellis, an anonymous reviewer, the other contributors to this volume, and the editors of Social Philosophy and Policy for their very constructive written comments.
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