Author Archives: kieran oberman

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.


Does Catalonia have a Right to Secede?

Photo: SBA73

Sunday’s images were shocking: polling stations stormed, elderly voters with bloodied faces, fire fighters (of all people) beaten by police. Coverage in the press and widespread sharing on social media ensured a PR disaster for Spain. Catalonia’s separatists have, for the moment at least, gained the world’s attention and a share of its sympathy. But how far should this sympathy extend?

One can condemn the violence and leave it there (as, for instance, Belgium did). But the more fundamental question is whether Catalonia has a right to secession. That is not just a question about Sunday’s poll. Even if one rejects the legitimacy of that poll, one still faces the question of whether another should be held. There is no reason why Catalonia could not hold an orderly referendum of the Quebec and Scotland kind. What has been stopping it so far is Spanish opposition. So, must Spain give way? Continue reading

Immigration and Freedom: Chandran Kukathas on Immigration Control


Protesters in San Francisco International Airport. Photograph: Josh Edelson.

By Alvaro Candia Callejas and Andrew Mousseau

Recently, we had the opportunity to welcome Professor Chandran Kukathas to discuss a chapter from his new book project, Immigration and Freedom with our class Contemporary Political Theory: Engaging with Current Research. In his book, Kukathas gives a new perspective on familiar moral and political problems. He argues that immigration control undermines—and perhaps even threatens—the ‘rule of law’. This causes significant social problems that must be addressed regardless of one’s personal views on immigration. Continue reading

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Helder De Schutter on Intralinguistic Justice

By Ankaret EL HAJ

At a time when English is spreading faster than ever, equality between languages has become a particularly pressing issue. Should one language have priority over another? Should we let minority languages die out? These are important questions and are often discussed in the field of interlinguistic justice. Further to this, Dr Helder De Schutter, an accomplished scholar of political philosophy from the Catholic University of Leuven, is working on the separate but connected issue of intralinguistic justice. This topic concerns the relationship between standard languages and dialects. In a paper he presented to our class on Contemporary Political Theory, he argues that while we consider the relative status of standard languages, we also need to consider the interface between the standard languages and the dialects over which they have, as an “internal monster,” gained political priority. Continue reading

Free Money for All: Karl Widerquist’s Argument for Basic Income


In what ways do theories of property and the social contract affect an individual’s freedom? Are members of a reasonably just society morally obliged to contribute to its economic system even in ways they might not want to, and within structures they might not agree with?

These are the questions that stand at the centre of  Karl Widerquist’s exploration of freedom in capitalist societies, laid out in his book Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income – A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No. Continue reading

Global Epidemics and Social Justice

health worker

Health Worker at Ebola Isolation Ward in Kabala, Sierra Leone. UN Photo: Marine Perret

By Markus Fraundorfer

Imagine a virus which kills a person within days causing horrible pain and suffering. Imagine this virus spreads within weeks, or even days, from city to city, from country to country, crossing state boundaries as if they never existed. Imagine this virus travels by aeroplane crossing oceans and continents without the slightest obstacle. Imagine that during its long journeys this virus infects hundreds of thousands of people. And imagine, there is no vaccine or successful treatment available. This is not the storyline of a thrilling novel; it is the storyline of what could have happened in 2014, the year of the most dangerous outbreak of Ebola since the virus was detected in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The most lethal strain of the Ebola virus, with a mortality rate ranging between 70 and 90 percent, can kill a person within several days. Continue reading

Philanthropy and Development


Photo: Gates Foundation.

By Paul Spray

I come from a particular context. I have worked all my life in international development – for developing country governments, for international NGOs, for the British government Department for International Development, and (albeit only for 18 months) for a philanthropic foundation. I am currently a Board member of Christian Aid.

  1. What’s going on: Philanthropy and development

There has been a rapid increase in the money given by Foundations for international development. In 2011 philanthropic North-South flows from OECD countries were at least US$59 billion, and probably a lot more. That’s already half of governments’ official aid. Continue reading

 Retrieving the Heart of the Market?

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron delivers a speech at The Conservative Party Big Society conference in central London, Wednesday March 31, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons

Photo: Andrew Parsons.

By Emma Dowling

In September 2014, the G8 Social Investment Taskforce (established by the UK presidency of the G8) produced a report entitled The Invisible Heart of Markets, outlining a strategy for G8 member states to develop a social investment market, invoking the metaphor of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ invoked by the 18th century political economist Adam Smith (1776) in The Wealth of Nations. According to dominant readings of Adam Smith’s theory, it is through the pursuit of one’s self-interest that social activity is steered via a market in beneficial ways for the collective good. The quip in the G8 Social Investment Taskforce report then seems to want to suggest that the market not only has an invisible hand that steers it, it also has an invisible heart that beats for the good of society. Continue reading

Five Bad Arguments Against Divestment

Photo: Augustine Ruiz.

Last year, Glasgow University became the first university in Europe to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Since then SOAS and Bedford have followed suit. Who, one wondered, would be next? The obvious answer was Edinburgh. Edinburgh has long prided itself on its ethical credentials. It was the first university in Europe to sign up to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. In 2014, it set up the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which swiftly launched a consultation on investment policy. The Just World Institute contributed by issuing a response document and collaborating in a packed out public debate. Finally, in the autumn, the matter moved to another level: the university set up a committee to formally consider the future of its £290 million endowment.   Divestment seemed like a real possibility. Continue reading

Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland?


Photo: Scottish Government.

On the face of things, the positions taken by the Yes and No camps in the referendum campaign would seem to be diametrically opposed. Yes argue that an independent Scotland would be better off: it would be richer, stronger, greener and fairer, resembling Norway or Sweden as much as the UK. No argue that an independent Scotland would be worse off: it would be poorer, jobs would head south and it would lose, along with its EU membership, the disproportionately large influence it has internationally by being part of the UK. Yet despite the appearance of opposition there is something that Yes and No have in common, which is that both are offering answers to the same question: what is best for Scotland?

But why think that “what is best for Scotland?” is the relevant question to ask? Here’s a strikingly different approach we could take. We could ask, “What is best for everyone in the world, no matter where they live?” Asking this question would force us to think beyond Scotland’s borders and take into account the interests of all those upon whom the referendum will have an effect. Clearly, the outsiders who will be most affected are those living in the rest of the UK. In the event of a Yes victory, politics within the rest of the UK is set for a shake up. Continue reading