photograph of ATM line in Kyev

This piece continues a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior?

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions?

In the first post I suggested reasons to think that imposing economic sanctions generally has a good effect. In this post, I want to consider what I think is the strongest objection to the use of sanctions – namely, that they target civilians in an unjust manner.

Double Effect and The Combatant/Non-Combatant Distinction

One of the fundamental principles of just war theory is the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In war, you are not supposed to target enemy civilians even if you think doing so might terrorize an enemy into giving up.

Now, this does not mean that you cannot ever harm civilians. Just war theorists acknowledge that sometimes civilians will die as a result of military action. You cannot wage a war without some collateral damage. Nevertheless, you are not supposed to target civilians. You are not supposed to intend that they be harmed.

We can illustrate this distinction by considering two different hypothetical cases of military bombing.

Case 1 – Strategic Bomber: A pilot is told that by destroying an enemy’s munitions factory, she will be able to end the enemy’s ability to wage war. By ending the war, the pilot will be able to save 200,000 lives. However, she is also told that the enemy has placed the munitions factory near a retirement center. If the pilot blows up the munitions factory, the secondary explosion will destroy the retirement center as well, killing 2,000 elderly civilians.

Case 2 – Terror Bomber: A pilot is told that the enemy is near the breaking point and might soon give up. However, it will require one last decisive strike against morale. The military’s psychologists have realized that the other country particularly values the lives of the elderly, and so if the pilot could kill several thousand elderly civilians that would demoralize the enemy, ending their ability to wage war. By ending the war, the pilot will be able to save 200,000 lives.

In both cases, the pilot faces a choice of whether to drop a bomb which will both end the war and kill 2,000 civilians. However, there is an important difference. In the strategic bomber case, she is not targeting the enemy civilians; in the terror bomber case, she is.

Here is one way to see the difference.

Suppose that in the first case, after the bombing the pilot comes home and turns on the TV. The TV announcer explains that a surprise bombing destroyed the enemy’s primary munitions factory. The announcer then goes on to explain that in a weird twist of fate, the bombing happened at the exact same time that everyone at the retirement center had left for a group trip to the zoo, and so no civilians were killed.

In the first case, the pilot would be thrilled. This is great news. The munitions factory was destroyed, and no civilians were harmed.

In contrast, suppose the second pilot targeted the same retirement center. When she gets home she also hears that no civilians were killed. But in this second case, the pilot will not be thrilled. The reason the pilot bombed the retirement center was to kill civilians. Killing civilians was the means to the end of ending the war. If the people don’t die, the pilot will not have helped stop the war at all.

In the terror bombing case, the pilot intends civilian deaths, because the harm to civilians is how the pilot plans to end the war. The civilians are, therefore, used as a means to an end. The civilians are viewed, as Warren Quinn says, “as material to be strategically shaped or framed.”

This distinction is core to just war theory, and for good reason.

But the distinction is often misunderstood. For example, many people mistakenly think that one’s ‘intention’ is just your ultimate goal (ending the war). Thus, some tried to use the intention/foresight distinction to say that Harry Truman did not intend civilian deaths when he authorized dropping atomic weapons on Japan. The thought was that Truman only intended to win the war.

But this is not how the principle of double effect works. Truman still intended those civilians’ deaths because it was by killing civilians that Truman hoped to win the war. This is why Harry Truman is a murder and a war criminal (as was argued by the great ethicist Elizabeth Anscombe).

The Problem for Sanctions

How do these principles apply to sanctions?

They create a real ethical challenge for the use of sanctions. That is because sanctions tend to directly target civilians. The goal of most sanctions is to inflict damage to a nation’s economy in order to change the government’s cost-benefit calculation. But it seems to do this damage by harming civilians.

Thus, sanctions seem to be a direct violation of the principle of double effect. Or so Joy Gordon argues:

Although the doctrine of double effect would seem to justify “collateral damage,” it does not offer a justification of sanctions. . . . The direct damage to the economy is intended to indirectly influence the leadership, by triggering political pressure or uprisings of the civilians, or by generating moral guilt from the “fearful spectacle of the civilian dead.” Sanctions directed against an economy would in fact be considered unsuccessful if no disruption of the economy took place. We often hear commentators objecting that “sanctions didn’t work” in one situation or another because they weren’t “tight” enough — they did not succeed in disrupting the economy. Thus, sanctions are not defensible under the doctrine of double effect.

Now, this objection does not apply to all sanctions. Some ‘smart sanctions’ do try to directly target the leaders of a military, and so do respect a distinction between civilians and combatants. But many other sanctions do not, including many of the sanctions that the west is currently levying against Russia.

A Possible Reply

There is a plausible reply that one can make on behalf of sanctions. That is because there is a big difference between dropping a bomb on someone and refusing to trade with someone.

The difference is that people have a right not to be killed, but it is not at all clear that anyone has the right to trade in Western markets. It is wrong for me to threaten to take your money unless you clean my house. But it is not wrong for me to offer to pay you if you clean my house. In both cases, you have more money if you clean my house than if you don’t, but in one case your rights are being violated and in the other they are not. If I threaten to sabotage your children’s grades unless you give me money, then I am using your children as a means to an end.  But there is nothing wrong with me saying I will only tutor your kids if you give me money.

So, you might think that the use of sanctions are not designed to harm civilians unless the government changes behavior. Instead, we are just refusing to help unless the government changes behavior.  And that seems, on the whole, far more ethically justifiable.

Real World Complications

So which view is right? Do sanctions violate the right of innocent civilians, using them as a means to an end to put pressure on a foreign government?

It’s a difficult question. And partly I think it might depend on the details of the sanction. Take the action of PepsiCo as an example. The company recently announced that they would no longer sell Pepsi, 7 Up, or other soft drinks in Russia. However, the company will continue to sell milk, baby food, and formula.

This strikes me as, plausibly, the right balance. I think it is plausible that people have a right to certain basic goods (like food, water, or baby formula), but not rights to Diet Pepsi. As such, it would make sense to refuse to sell luxuries, even if one continues to supply civilians with necessities.

Thus, it seems that we should probably oppose any sanctions that prevent the sale of life-saving medications to Russian civilians; but it seems justifiable to support sanctions that prevent the sale of American-made cars.

Marshall is currently completing his PhD in Philosophy at Florida State University. His primarily studies the intersection of ethics and the nature of persons. Outside of Academia, Marshall also directs curricular design for high school debate camps with the Victory Briefs Institute.