Category Archives: Conflict and Peace

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

Nicola Perugini – The Apparatus of Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: On the Construction of Liminal Subjects and Spaces

PTRG seminar series: 14 Dec 2016

Photo: Moyan Brenn

The last Political Theory Research Group seminar of 2016 brings Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon’s interesting paper The Apparatus of Distinction and the Ethics of Violence into discussion. At the very beginning of the paper, the authors quote that “Enemy Leaders look like everyone else. Enemy combatants look like everyone else” and it is this new reality of modern wars that challenges the notion that we are able to make distinctions between combatant and non-combatant, and military and civilian sites. In this paper, they argue that, due to the introduction of the new technology, a status of liminal subjects and spaces is created to legitimize the violence in war. Continue reading

Akwugo Emejulu – Women of Colour’s Agency and White Ignorance: Thinking through Erasure and Resistance

Political Theory Research Group series 2016/17: 26 October

Kara Walker - A Subtlety (source: metacynic on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

Kara Walker – A Subtlety (source: metacynic on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

Akwugo Emejulu provided a chapter for discussion from her forthcoming book on the effects of austerity on minority women in France and Britain. In this chapter she, together with her co-author Leah Bassel, sets out the ways in which notions of political racelessness reproduce and legitimate violent erasure and exclusion of minority women from the European polity. Of particular concern is the role the white European left plays in perpetuating political racelessness to the detriment of such excluded groups. The chapter also reflects on how minority women can respond to these European commitments that have enabled post-colonial amnesia and white ignorance.

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Maximilian Jaede – Thomas Hobbes’s Proto-Liberal Conception of Peace

Political Theory Research Group series 2016/17: 28 September

Thomas Hobbes Credit: Skara kommun (CC BY 2.0)

Thomas Hobbes (credit: Skara kommun (CC BY 2.0))

Maximillian Jaede’s paper “Thomas Hobbes’s Proto-Liberal Conception of Peace” is an introductory chapter to a larger book project of the same title. In the chapter, he argues that there are more points of convergence between Hobbesian and liberal conceptions of peace than we might think. Indeed, although ‘Hobbesian realism’ and ‘liberalism’ are often characterised as rivals, a Hobbesian vision of peace is best seen as proto-liberal.

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Catherine Lu – Justice and Reconciliation in International Relations

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 19 Apr 2016

Slavery monument, Zanzibar Photo: Seyemon

Slavery monument, Zanzibar
Photo: Seyemon

How should we think theoretically and historically about the aftermath of conflicts? In a chapter from her forthcoming book Justice and Reconciliation in International Relations, Catherine Lu argues that two distinct frameworks for rectifying historic injustice can contribute through a fruitful interaction: interactional injustice and structural injustice. In the literature, the focus is usually on an interactional framework, in which a direct line of responsibility and wrongdoing by one party upon another is mapped. For instance, in the Iraq War civilians who lost family members due to US bombings could be given monetary compensation. Continue reading

Bashir Saade – ISIS and Game of Thrones: The Global between Tradition, Identity and the Politics of Spectacle

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 6 Apr 2016

Photo: Anonymous Iraqi citizens in Iraq

Bashir Saade’s paper offers a far-reaching discussion of issues surrounding identity, authority, and tradition, considered with reference to ISIS. A central objective of Bashir’s paper is to examine the relationship between modern audio-visual technologies and cultural identities, more specifically he looks to address how ISIS combines cutting edge AV practices with repeated attempts to harken back to historical social configurations. Related to this is his attempt to assess the extent to which ISIS can be said to be an Islamic organisation. Here he considers how ISIS ideologues employ highly selective excerpts from scriptural and historical texts in order to legitimise acts of extreme violence. Continue reading

The Crimean crisis: justified secession, Russian aggression or both?

The current standoff in the Crimea raises a number of philosophical problems.  The first is whether regions within countries have a right to secede and if so under what conditions.  In their condemnation of the deployment of Russian troops, Western politicians have been keen to stress the importance of Ukrainian territorial integrity.  But why should we judge Ukrainian territorial integrity so important?  Most people seem to think that if the majority within a defined region wish to secede, that region has a right to secede, perhaps especially if has a history of independence and if the majority of its inhabitants are of a distinct ethnic or national group.  Thus most people seem to think that David Cameron was not only right, but also obligated, to sign the Edinburgh Agreement that paved the way for the Scottish independence referendum.  In their view, Scotland has a right to secede.  As I indicated in a previous article, I am far from convinced, but if we assume the truth of this pro-secessionist sentiment, the implication seems to be that Crimea also has a right to secede.  Continue reading

Human rights and ethics in a crowded planet

Any renewal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has to acknowledge the fact that we live in a crowded planet – crowded in the sense that the demands placed by the world’s human population on its ecological space are such that some members do not have adequate for their health and well-being.

The growth of human numbers is clearly a major concern, but in framing that concern we need to think carefully how the naturalistic element of the problem – the size of a population in relation to its ecological support system – is affected by the social relations that distribute rights of access to it.  The connection between the ecological and the social is not always reflected on clearly, if at all, in discussions of human rights and ethics. Continue reading