Harming to Help? Pattison on the Ethical Dilemma of Economic Sanctions

Protest against Iraq war and sanctions, Washing DC, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Sophie Baumert

How should we respond to injustice abroad? On the international level, it is difficult to hold actors accountable who are responsible for harmful actions. If a state persecutes minorities within its borders, or is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons, how can others motivate it to change its behaviour?

Much is at stake, because our responses can have dramatic effects on innocent human beings. One option is intervention, going to war to force change. But costs to innocent persons are high, on all sides. Another option is to sit back and do nothing. However, this allows the state to continue harming people within its borders, or develop weapons that could potentially harm many others in the future. Are there any other routes that states can pursue to effectively deal with those violating international norms, while causing as little harm to innocent persons as possible?

In his forthcoming book The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence, Professor James Pattison explores the options located between the extremes of declaring war and doing nothing. He assesses the ethical dilemmas these alternatives generate: Are they morally permissible? Are they effective? Do they comply with values important to us? One alternative under evaluation are economic sanctions, by which states impose economic restrictions on another state in order to coerce it to comply with their demands. Such sanctions can be comprehensive, cutting off an entire economy, or they can be targeted towards single economic sectors, or individuals. The desired result of these measures is that imposing economic pressure will force a state to change its policies or behaviour.

The ethical dilemma is that ‘economic pressure’ essentially means causing harm to ordinary civilians who have to suffer the consequences of disruptions to the economy, facing job losses, increased costs of living, and shortages of resources. For instance, broad financial and trade sanctions – as imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Iraq in the 1990s – may subject the local population to severe shortages of essential goods such as food or medicines, leading to malnutrition, the spread of diseases, and, ultimately, people dying. Meanwhile, the desired outcome is by no means guaranteed, as the government under sanction might not change its behaviour. For these reasons, economic sanctions are widely regarded as morally impermissible. They cause too much harm without ensuring the intended result.


Defending economic sanctions

Although Pattison acknowledges the problematic nature of economic sanctions, he argues that sanctions are not necessarily morally impermissible. We should take a pragmatic approach, differentiating and weighing the harms and benefits of economic sanctions against other options. To establish his point, Pattison argues that the main arguments against economic sanctions do not apply to all forms such sanctions can take. First, he concedes that economic sanctions generally fail to effectively differentiate between harms to innocent civilians and those responsible for morally reprehensible actions. However, if economic sanctions cause less harm to innocent civilians than other options, they could still be preferable.

Second, since it is widely known that economic sanctions are likely to cause harm to innocents, critics argue that states who nonetheless impose sanctions act wrongly, because they intend this harm. In reply, Pattison draws a distinction between motives and intentions. Motives are the ultimate goals of our actions, while intentions are their immediate goals. Although it might be true that the suffering of innocents in the target state is intended, this is not necessarily impermissible if the ultimate goal of those imposing sanctions is to reduce harms overall.

Third, economic sanctions are criticised for reducing people to a mere means to an end, denying their inherent moral worth. Pattison rejects this characterisation, arguing that states can value the dignity of humans whilst reluctantly accepting some harm to them, for the greater good. Nonetheless, he indicates a limit to how much harm is justified in the pursuit of ultimate goals.


Focus on humanitarian consequences

To put a limit on how much harm is permissible, Pattison urges us to reassess how we evaluate the effectiveness of economic sanctions. Instead of assessing their success with regards to the goals of international community, we should focus on the overall effects on human rights and well-being. For instance, when international community imposes broad economic sanctions on a state to coerce a change in its political leadership, we should not just assess the sanctions’ effectiveness based on the achievement of this goal. If broad sanctions cause severe harms to large parts of the population, they cannot be regarded effective, regardless of their political result. On the other hand, if targeted sanctions only affect liable individuals without harming innocent civilians, they are permissible. We can also contrast this with other options: do human rights suffer more when we declare war, or impose economic sanctions?

When a state violates human rights, it is likely that all possible responses will involve harms. Therefore, so Pattison argues, we need to evaluate which action will result in the fairest distribution of harms among persons. In war, soldiers have to bear the brunt of the costs, while inaction could put concentrated costs on a persecuted minority. Economic sanctions, despite affecting more people, can potentially distribute the costs more evenly among the population. Overall, Pattison endeavours to establish that economic sanctions are not morally wrong per se. He calls for a pragmatic and nuanced approach to evaluating the methods and outcomes of sanctions in comparison to the potential harms and benefits of other approaches.


Harming others for a good cause?

When discussing this chapter with Pattison in our Contemporary Political Theory class, the debate circled mainly around his distinction between intentions and motives. Concerns were raised that a focus on good motives might justify terrible behaviour. How much harm are states allowed to cause in the name of a good motive? Pattison replied that constraints of proportionality would apply, but the boundaries were left unclear. He maintained that the reasons for actions matter in our assessment of their morality. If a state imposes sanctions because it dislikes the inhabitants of another state, its motive is bad. If it imposes sanctions to ultimately secure human rights, its motive is good. Further questions on the importance of consequences followed. If a person saves another person’s life to earn a reward, their motive is wrong, but we couldn’t convincingly defend the notion that the action was wrong. Also, how can we know the true motives of a person, let alone a state?

In the end, the discussion was left unresolved. Despite general agreement that the consequences of actions do matter, there was less agreement on how we can tie motives into our moral assessment for actions, without allowing for too much harm. Yet the debate highlighted the inherently problematic nature of economic sanctions that invariably cause harm to some individuals. Is some harm justified if it serves a greater goal? How much harm is justified? Pattison suggests that, when we are caught between a rock and a hard place, having to decide between different options involving harms, we should weigh them against each other, to see which is the lesser evil.


Kieran Oberman – Killing and Rescuing: The Case for Revising Necessity

PTRG: 16 May 2018


Killing is justifiable if it is necessary.  If killing is unnecessary, it is unjustifiable and therefore wrong.  Then, a question is: When is killing necessary or unnecessary?  Oberman addresses this question in relation to the act of other-defence: When is killing someone necessary or unnecessary to defend others against death?  Continue reading

Elizabeth Cripps – If having children is bad for the environment, what should parents do about it?

PTRG: 4 April 2018

Maternity Mark in Japan

Summary of the paper:

One’s decision to have children, or to become a parent, has negative environmental impact.  The birthing of children results in an increase in the global population, and ultimately in additional ecological burdens.  Admitting this, Liz asks: Do individuals, at least in the affluent class, have a moral duty to attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of having children/ becoming a parent?  Her answer is that they do.  But Liz also argues that this does not mean individuals have a duty to have no (biological) child or not to become a (biological) parent. Continue reading

Dr Clare Chambers – The Neutralist Dilemma

PTRG – 28th March 2018

This week the Political Theory Research Group welcomed Dr Clare Chambers of the University of Cambridge to discuss her paper, ‘Reasonable disagreement and the neutralist dilemma: Abortion and circumcision in Matthew Kramer’s Liberalism with Excellence.’

By tracing the logical implications of the liberal state’s commitment to neutrality, the paper subtly reveals the limits of the neutralist project in liberalism. Through the cases of abortion and circumcision, it shows that sometimes, the state cannot avoid violating its commitment to neutrality. It has to implement a policy with which a party would reasonably disagree on the basis that it violates freedom and equality. In the case of abortion, there is reasonable disagreement about whether the foetus is a person. If the state takes the position that the foetus is not a person, it should permit abortion because to do otherwise would be to deny the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who want to terminate their pregnancy. If the state takes the position that the foetus is a person, the state should prohibit abortion because allowing it would be murder, violating the freedom and equality of the foetus. But taking a position on whether the foetus is a person violates neutrality because it is a point about which people reasonably disagree due to the burdens of judgement.

Dr Chambers’ paper provoked vigorous debate for the duration of the session. The choice of cases lent themselves to extensive discussion, as did the setup of the neutralist dilemma itself. Participants were particularly keen to explore the ramifications of state neutrality for parenting. Questions arose regarding parental intervention and the range of possible future lives that parents inevitably prevent their children from living, and the extent to which parents should be allowed to (irreversibly) modify the bodies of their children for cultural, or even cosmetic, reasons. In addition to this, the function of state neutrality and its capacity to bolster or diffuse racist or otherwise prejudicial attitudes was considered. There were also lively exchanges regarding the questions of adults’ regret for their parents’ actions, the value of bodily integrity, and the importance of one’s sense of cultural belonging, both as a child and adult.

Elinor Mason – The Silencing of Sexual Refusal

Content note: academic discussion of consent, rape, and sexual harassment


PTRG 25/10/17

This week we welcomed Dr Elinor Mason from the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy. Elinor presented her paper entitled ‘Rape, Harassment, and the Silencing of Sexual Refusal’, which takes as its point of departure a well-known debate in the philosophy of language regarding the effect that mainstream pornography has on women’s rejections of sexual advances: this is the idea that pornography, along with other cultural representations of women’s sexuality, somehow renders the refusing ‘no’ ineffective, either by distorting its meaning or the credibility of the refuser. Continue reading

Louis Fletcher – From Civilization to Globalism: The Spatial Imaginary of Arnold Toynbee and Quincy Wright

PTRG 18/10/2017

Edinburgh doctoral candidate Louis Fletcher presented his paper on civilization and globalism at this week’s PTRG. A work in intellectual history, Louis’ paper charts the decline of civilization as an organizing concept in global political thought, and the birth of globalism in the interwar years in Europe. Drawing on the work of two liberal internationalists who wrote extensively on civilization and the emergent global order following the First World War, Louis explores how these thinkers, Arnold Toynbee and Quincy Wright, eschewed ‘civilization’ as a temporal achievement eventually reached by all cultures, embracing instead a cyclical understanding of the fortunes of history’s many civilizations. The twilight of the European empires and the catastrophe of war heralded a new era for Toynbee and Wright, as institutions such as the League of Nations and seismic shifts in the balances of power across Europe, the Americas, Russia, India and the Antipodean colonies transformed the global political order in this exceptional period. Continue reading

Mihaela Mihai – Complicity, Hope and the Imagination

Source: Hartwig HKD on Flickr

For this week’s seminar, Mihaela Mihai presented a paper on complicity, hope, and imagination in the context of systemic political repression. Part of her greyzone project researching the potential of art to illustrate the contribution bystanders, collaborators, and beneficiaries make to political violence and widespread injustice, this paper explores the complex temporal dimension to navigating the social world. Its effects on how hope, resistance, and solidarity are perceived and structured. To achieve this goal, Mihaela initially puts forward a critical review of existing complicity literature, in its dominant moral and legal framework insufficiently attentive to humans’ positionality, e.g. how action is part of enduring social processes. This raises serious doubts about its ability to capture the relationship between complicit and resistant action in the messy context of the greyzone as further clarified using the example of Vichy France. In moving beyond the paradigm, her paper offers an analysis of agency and subjectification that helps broaden our understanding of the context of complicity without denying its connection to questions of blame and responsibility. Continue reading

Prof Henry Shue – Climate Mitigation and Subsistence Protection

PTRG 13 Oct 2017

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Professor Henry Shue from Oxford University as the presenter for PTRG yesterday.  In the presented paper, Professor Shue critically reflects upon his earlier argument: that it is important to make a distinction between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’, and that this distinction should be incorporated into climate policy intended to achieve mitigation.  ‘Subsistence emissions’ are emissions necessary for securing the basic right to subsistence, whereas ‘luxury emissions’ are those that exceed a minimally adequate level of emission.  According to Professor Shue, it is morally unacceptable to ask the poor to sacrifice subsistence emissions so that the affluent can maintain their luxury emissions.  Continue reading