Acton Institute Powerblog

How do we determine the morality of economic sanctions?

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Russia and individual Russians have been hard hit by sanctions imposed by nations around the world, all intended to deter Vladimir Putin from pursuing his illegal war in Ukraine. But what moral principles should guide our decisions about whether to impose sanctions and the form they take? […]

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Are economic sanctions morally permissible? That question has been asked by many people since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of a range of economic sanctions on Russian entities and individuals by the United States, most European nations, and many other countries.

People’s answers, I have discovered, don’t neatly track right-left divisions. I have met conservatives and progressives who fiercely oppose the use of economic sanctions in principle or in particular cases, as well as progressives and conservatives who favor them in specific instances.

In this short reflection, I don’t propose to address the question of whether a particular set of economic sanctions on a given country in the past or present was or is morally acceptable. Instead, I’d like to propose some key criteria by which we can assess the ethical status of a given choice to use economic sanctions.

To be clear about what we are discussing: Economic sanctions are the legally authorized and politically directed interdiction of normal trade, economic, or financial relations with a particular individual, organization (such as a business), or sovereign state. They are imposed to realize specific foreign policy ends and/or as a means of enforcing international law and/or to deter distinct entities from acting in certain ways. Examples of goals for which sanctions have been imposed in the more recent past by some Western governments include the ending of apartheid in South Africa, pushing the Polish Communist regime to lift the state of martial law imposed upon Poland in 1981, and seeking to deter North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

Sometimes sanctions are comprehensive and attempt to prohibit most or all economic exchanges with a given individual, organization, country, or set of countries. More commonly, sanctions are specifically targeted. Examples might be the prohibition of selling weapons to the government of a particular country, the targeting of an industry upon which a country is especially dependent, or denying specific individuals (government officials, individuals close to a regime’s leadership, etc.) the capacity to engage in economic exchanges with foreign entities.

Who Suffers?

Sanctions are, however, a complicated business. In some cases, sanctions disproportionately impact individuals or groups who are not responsible for the decisions of governments. In apartheid South Africa, for instance, black South Africans were not responsible for the regime’s racial policies. Indeed, they were the primary victims. But economic sanctions also hurt black South Africans more than, say, white South Africans because the former were generally far poorer than the latter. This was one reason why Margaret Thatcher—who firmly opposed apartheid—questioned the wisdom of imposing sanctions on South Africa. She also worried that sanctions might harden resistance to dismantling apartheid among segments of the white South African population.

Yet it has also been argued that sanctions played a particular role in reducing foreign capital investment in South Africa and helped trigger a capital flight from the country. This, the argument goes, incentivized some in the white South African business community to put pressure on the government to start dismantling the apartheid system—thereby helping to end many of the intrinsic justices being perpetuated against black South Africans.

Of course, we will never know precisely how much of a role sanctions played in bringing down apartheid in proportion to other factors. These range from the end of the Cold War (which removed the rationale that South Africa, for all the awfulness of the regime, helped check the advance of some Marxist guerilla movements backed by Communist Cuba and Eastern Bloc nations in the southern African cone) to changing attitudes among some white South Africans on racial questions.

But while these were important pieces of information that needed to be worked into the moral calculus, none in themselves could definitively determine the justice or injustice of the use of sanctions. For these types of judgments, we need principles grounded in reason. And one possible way of determining whether an instance of sanctions is just or unjust could be to deploy some of the criteria commonly associated with just war theory. Obviously war and economic sanctions are different things. Both, however, involve the use of coercion by governments to realize specific ends in the sphere of international relations.

Grounded in Christian moral reflection and extensively developed in the natural law tradition from the 12th century onward, the term “just war theory” is widely used to describe two sets of principles. First, it denotes the criteria needed to determine whether the decision to go to war is just (ius ad bellum). Second, it describes principles that help guide how a country wages a war (ius in bello).

Defining Justice

Concerning the ius ad bellum principles, contemporary just war theorists would broadly agree that they involve all or most of the following:

  • The cause must be just (e.g., self-defense).
  • The war must be declared by a legitimate authority (i.e., a sovereign state headed by a legitimate government).
  • The decision must embody right intention (the object intended by the government is justice, not, for instance, vengeance).
  • There must be some reasonable probability of realizing the goal.
  • All other means of trying to address the problem must have been used and failed.

With the exception of the last principle (sanctions are, by definition, not a last resort), these criteria are helpful for thinking through the decision to impose sanctions. They indicate that the imposition of sanctions cannot be about a state engaging in, for example, self-aggrandizement. Likewise, if there is no reasonable probability of sanctions shifting the needle toward realization of the intended goals, this would suggest that sanctions are not a just or reasonable option. Conversely, if there is a strong likelihood of sanctions achieving their objective, their use may be just and reasonable.

But should these criteria be met, they do not tell us what government can and cannot do once they decide to impose sanctions. Here, some of the ius in bello principles that guide how war is waged may also be helpful.

One such principle is that of “discrimination.” This means that you may act only against those who are legitimate targets in war (military bases, soldiers plainly intent upon fighting, key communications facilities needed to wage war, etc.). By contrast, civilians and noncombatants may not be intentionally targeted. In war, it’s inevitable that civilians and noncombatants get hurt. But what matters is whether they are intentionally targeted. Defining what reasonably falls within the scope of intentionality is a related question that must also be addressed.

A second principle is called “proportionality.” This concerns how much force is morally appropriate to realize the goal. You must deploy only that force judged sufficient to realize the goal and no more. This is not simply about minimizing destruction and casualties. It is also about acting justly by not acting out of all proportion to the problem you are trying to address. The use of weapons, for example, should not facilitate evils more serious than the evil the war seeks to eliminate.

Again, these principles seem applicable to the question of sanctions. Imposing a total all-encompassing embargo of all economic exchanges with a country and all its businesses and citizens because its government is oppressing a particular minority’s religious freedom would appear to violate both the principles of proportionality and discrimination. Conversely, targeting those political leaders, government officials, and agencies responsible for the violations of religious liberty would be a proportionate response that involves proper discrimination.

The Politics of Prudence

What’s evident, however, when we consider these principles is that applying them to a given situation requires considerable prudence. By prudence I don’t have in mind realpolitik, pragmatism, or cautiousness. Rather, I mean the virtue of using our reason to identify 1) what is the good (or goods) to be realized and 2) what are just means for realizing such goods. Moreover, as the word “virtue” suggests, prudence is a moral habit that, like all habits, has to be consciously developed over time.

It’s also the case that prudent individuals applying these principles to a given situation could conceivably come to different conclusions about whether to impose sanctions, the type of sanctions deployed, and the precise targets of these sanctions. This is not a matter of indulging moral relativism. Rather it reflects the fact that answering many—though not all—moral questions often involves making judgments about facts and probabilities that are in reasonable dispute among reasonable people. No one can know definitively in advance, for example, whether a set of economic sanctions will deter a regime from acting in a particular way. In many cases, rational people can also disagree about whether targeting particular individuals or, alternatively, specific industries is likely to be more effective at realizing the goal.

In a way, however, this is beside the point. What matters about a government’s decision to impose sanctions and the form taken by those sanctions is that those making such choices do so in a manner consistent with the demands of right reason. For therein is the essence of morality, the demands of which are equally obliging upon everyone—including those making decisions about whether to apply sanctions and the form they might take. Once we abandon such an understanding of morality, the possibility that arbitrariness or outright barbarism will take center stage suddenly becomes much more real.

Samuel Gregg

is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.