Faux Treaty on Witch-Hunting On the ethics of economic sanctions
“Russia has invaded Ukraine! Russia must be punished!” Thus goes the most commonly expressed sentiment these days, postulating an imperative that seems, however, by far easier said than done. “Economically, politically”, the speech then emphatically continues, “...and militarily” in a rather light whisper. Yet, even if we were to content ourselves with “verba” without moving further to “facta”, a heady operational riddle is evident to those who pay close attention to the words being used (said usage being, in itself, a factum as much as an intended expression of facts). Which Russia are we referring to? All of Russia? Should V.V. Putin, the “ringleader” who originated this crisis, be condemned before anything and anyone else? Should we also not punish the (active and passive) accomplices of the now infamous head of state: the apparatchiks (who fill the ranks of the country’s political leadership); the oligarchs (from the pseudo-private business); the state-serving intelligentsia (with both its academic and artistic branches)? Maybe sanction the Russian nation itself, for surely it has democratically legitimized the tyrant, either involuntarily (through ignorance) or voluntarily (through deluded conviction)? Why not the Russian culture altogether, with its departed and unborn, since the racketeers have the same unhealthy origins as the Karamazov brothers and poor Karenina?
To any rational and humble man, however, the deluge of calculations and estimates of the effectiveness of sanctions requires a prelude on ethics. In proper terms, if economics is about “the means”, ethics is about “the purposes”, which can be good / fair / just / morally right or not. Without getting mired in definitions, common sense tells us that, when it comes to sanctions, the problem is centred on who applies them to whom and how. Briefly put, economic sanctions are intended to either change or prevent undesirable policies and behaviours (even if only by pressures exerted on the image of the recipient, as being the target of sanctions tends to elicits distrust from third parties) or convey a statement on the determination of their initiator (since they also accrue a cost), or perhaps to punish a done deed (by causing material damage to the perpetrator). And when called upon to pass judgment, ethicists need to make use of several analytical frameworks: the doctrine of just war, theories on the application of the law, utilitarianism and “clean hands”.
The advocates of judging economic sanctions through the lens of just war point out that, although one can state that they pass the “tests” of the justness of their cause, their proportionality in relation to the offenses they punish, the good intentions underlying them, the legitimate authority applying them, their use as last resort measures, and the reasonable chances of the success of their use, they prove challenging when it comes to discriminating between civilians and combatants. Even when aimed at specific target, in an interconnected (national) economy, sanctions reverberate upon civilians, deemed as collateral (and tolerable) casualties in the grand scheme of winning the war (where politicians and soldiers do reign supreme). Then, there is the problem of applying the law on an international level, which suffers from an autoimmune legitimacy issue: the postulate of sovereignty. As for the adherents of utilitarianism, they must overcome the problem of (the scientific illegitimacy of) inter-subjective value comparisons, claiming that the greater good outweighs the costs in terms of evil. And those who claim that, by not issuing sanctions, one’s hands are stained too need to explain how they will wash their hands of the collateral casualties.
It would seem that we are in a situation of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t”. Such a view is nevertheless patently absurd. The answer to this riddle is that we do not have a geometric solution. When one judges aggregate entities and collective masses (e.g., states and nations), ethical judgments are by default contaminated since they applied meaningfully only to individuals / persons, the single known entities endowed with the ability to act rationally… and bear responsibility. Yes, collective entities also act, but only when there is internal consensus and only then can they be called to account. For instance, a coherent (and thus punishable) aggregation could be “the ruling political class” (although the opposition is of the same cloth). These politicians, with acolytes from other environments, are the ones responsible for belligerence: it is they who start wars (“the continuation of political intercourse by other means”, to evoke the brilliant insight of von Clausewitz), so let them pay for the outcomes. OK, fine! Yet who will be the one to cast the first stone?