The Morality of Sanctions

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Economic sanctions have been subject to extensive criticism. They are often seen as indiscriminate, intending the harms that they inflict, and using the suffering of the innocent as a means to enact policy change. Indeed, some reject outright the permissibility of economic sanctions. By contrast, in this essay, I defend the case for economic sanctions. I argue that sanctions are not necessarily morally problematic and, in doing so, argue that sanctions are less morally problematic than is often claimed. I go on to argue that sanctions may sometimes be morally preferable to the leading alternatives and, in particular, to wars and doing nothing. This is in part because sanctions are more likely to distribute fairly the currently inevitable harms to innocents of tackling aggression and mass atrocities. In the final part of the essay, I draw on this point to argue more generally that that we should often favor a “Harm-Distribution Approach” in the ethics of war and peace.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)192-215
Number of pages23
JournalSocial Philosophy and Policy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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