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Essay Competition Success

17 Mar 23

Three of our Year 12 students, Polina, Maggie and Jack have done exceptionally well in the Northeastern University London Essay Competition 2023.  Polina was a finalist, with her essay on What are the most likely implications of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia?  Maggie and Jack have been highly commended for their entries.  Maggie discussed, Can it ever be morally acceptable to sacrifice an innocent person for some greater good?, while Jack considered, What can historians learn from the study of past empires and imperialism? 

In a competition where there were 5,000 contestants, our students have done exceptionally well.  You can read their essays below.

Polina’s essay – What are the most likely implications of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia?

Who would have thought that in 2022 someone would start a war? However, it happened and we cannot change what happened; what matters is what other countries can do to stop Russia. The entire world is trying to help as best as they can by sending weapons to Ukraine, isolating Russians from the outside world and imposing sanctions on Russia and people who own Russian passports.

Changing attitudes in Russia towards the invasion of Ukraine is not easy. Statistically about 80% of Russians supported Putin, before he announced mobilisation. After he announced mobilisation, even more people supported Putin and were willing to fight on his behalf. One way of attempting to undermine support is the imposition of sanctions. Sanctions were imposed on Russia not only in 2022, but previously when they annexed Crimea and attacked Donbass in 2014. Technically, sanctions were divided into two forms: “Crimean sanctions,” aimed mostly at individuals taking part in the Crimean annexation, and “Donbass sanctions,” which are more focused on companies. This is because there were different people acting in different areas of the war. Countries which imposed sanctions usually froze assets or put travel restrictions on certain individuals. These 2014 sanctions are important, because assessing whether they have had any effect gives us the opportunity to predict whether the 2022 sanctions will work.

The “Crimean Sanctions,” which were imposed on people, were put in place by Barack Obama. They were mostly aimed at freezing assets and travel restrictions on people who related to the Russian economy, such as engineering, energy and mining. Individuals got their visas cancelled or were not allowed to enter to certain countries. Later, “sectoral” sanctions were imposed, which expanded to include more politicians and journalists. However, the EU and the USA have also announced sanctions that started to prevent any imports going into Crimea due to Ukraine losing total control over what is happening over there.

“Donbass sanctions” were imposed on companies such as Rosneft, the oil companies and the banks. However, the EU also restricted Russia from buying equipment for their oil extraction. As the Russian economy was fully dependent on other countries, things like imports became harder to get as the transportation also became harder. Hence the Russians started replacing a lot of their imports with their own domestic products. That also meant that  they localised their products more. Although these sanctions were meant to hurt the Russian economy, arguably they may have boosted it as people started to have fewer choices, hence the local producers started to have demand for their product, which kept the economy going. A lot of Russians also kept working for outside companies, so therefore were still making money from outside Russia which they could use on domestic products. In contrast, due to sanctions being put on Russia, and in particular the attempt of some countries to try to stop buying gas from Russia, the Russian economy earned less money from exports. However, despite this specific drop in income from gas exports, overall, the effect of sanctions was not as harsh as political leaders thought and has not affected Russia’s economy as much as was hoped. For example, in 2018 Russia still hosted the Football World Cup, one of the biggest tournaments, which brought a lot of money into the country, improving both the economy and overall GDP.

Overall, the impact on Russia  was not as big as expected, since Russia has become less dependent  on Western countries. Russia became closer with Asian countries, so they started get exports from there, rather than the West. The failure of the 2014 sanctions to hurt Russia badly means that Russia did not expect that any new sanctions would affect them badly either. In turn, this means that the 2014 sanctions failed to prevent the 2022 invasion. In 2014 imports substitution was the main way the Russian economy survived. However, in 2022 500,000 skilled workers left the country, so labour forces went down. Also, the imports this time went down by 50%, causing not only damage to the Russian economy, but even China’s. In China the economy has fallen from 8.1 billion dollars per month to 3.8 billion. Therefore, the war is not only affecting Russian economy, but the other countries’, which suggests that sanctions can have effects beyond the country at which they are aimed.

In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, there were even more sanctions imposed. These were now more aimed at ordinary people, so they could start reacting towards their own government and stop this war, but as we know that did not happen. Many countries banned Russian citizens from entering  their countries. Many companies are not selling their goods and services to people who are Russians. Russians are not allowed to compete in tournaments for different sports, a lot of them just get banned by other countries. Due to Russian news being corrupted propaganda, rather than accurate reporting, Russians living outside Russia, as well as those within Russia, think that they are not guilty and believe that Ukraine was the one who has started the war. This makes it harder for sanctions to take effect, as people want to support their country, not realising that it is at fault. Moreover, while it is easy for some  companies  to ‘fight’ Russians  by not selling their products or  services to them, that is often because those companies do not have much trade with Russians and they  know that it will not affect them greatly. However, political leaders cannot afford to take the risk of significant damage to their economies. For example, Germany, which is dependent on Russia’s gas, cannot impose sanctions, because Germany will not survive without gas as they import 34% of all gas from Russia. Here, sanctions are undermined by the potential damage to the German economy.

Inside Russia, there has been massive changes towards their own economy, even though Russia does not show it. One of them is that 40% of their GDP is lost. Russia for the first time in many years has gone into deficit, meaning they spend more than they get. All the money they get is going towards their army, since corruption meant that money which was previously supposed to go towards the army went into pockets of officers. However, while sanctions are meant to have damaged Russia’s military capability, Russia still has allies, such as China and Iran, which are helping to supply weapons. The leaders of China and Iran have similar political views to Putin, so it could be argued that sanctions have simply ensured that there is a closer alliance between the three countries. This is not a positive diplomatic result. As we know, since WW1 there have been many sanctions imposed on different countries. Sanctions have been successful at 34% rate at best. UN sanctions have failed 98% of the time, which makes us question whether there is a point of putting countries under sanctions. Moreover, how long will any sanctions last? The country or people on whom sanctions were imposed will get used to it and will find diverse ways to escape the sanctions. Therefore, is there any point in putting  sanctions on different countries? I would argue that there is.

Economists say that they cannot yet predict for how long the sanctions will last and how much damage it will cause Russia and all other countries. Ukraine, naturally, will argue that the sanctions should last throughout the whole of the war and until Russia repays all the damage they have done. However, there is a danger that the war will be attributed to Putin alone and that, if he dies, some countries may argue that Russia should no longer pay sanctions, since Putin bears full responsibility.

In conclusion, it is very difficult to predict the implication of economic sanctions on Russia. Those imposed in 2014 did not make Russia withdraw from Crimea, nor did they prevent the 2022 invasion. They were unsuccessful politically, partly because sanctions usually do not work on dictatorships. Nor do sanctions work as well on countries with fewer connections to outside organisations (such as NATO and the EU) or which have large net exports. Diplomatically, sanctions have so far led to closer relations between China, Iran, and Russia. In economic terms, Russia has adapted to the loss of imports, and will continue to adapt to the loss of revenue from other exports because gas and oil are still so important. However, one point about sanctions is very important: they give moral authority and prove that countries care about a situation. Sanctions make a statement and provide psychological pressure. The sanctions imposed in 2022 have made very clear that the world does not support Russia.

Jack’s essay – What can historians learn from the study of past empires and imperialism?

Recently the study of Empires has been criticised for viewing Imperial History, particularly that of Europe, with a lens of Great Man(1) divinity and rhetoric. Despite this, empires still have a place of importance as a building block in our world, as well as something which can be studied to understand the patterns of the past that have shaped our present. Today we shun the term ‘Imperialism’ believing we have shed its structures in modern society, but its influence is stubborn. Empires, not only in Europe, set long shadows not just from our past but into our future.

The definition of Empire in the Oxford dictionary is ‘a group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government ‘. Just as this reflects modern values of identity and nationalism, the etymology of past Empires can provide valuable insight into the past, for example, ‘Tsardom’, the Russian word for Empire. Tsar derives from Caesar, exemplifying the Russian European-leaning tradition and their Greek influences from the Eastern Roman empire, indicated with the baptism of Vladimir the First by Greek Missionaries(2). More importantly the system of Autocracy, which remained a stagnant form of Russian politics throughout its history, is also exemplified through ‘tsardom’, Tsardom meaning the lands controlled by the Tsar implying that the Russian empire is based on a fundamental assumption of Russia being the lands of the Tsar. This differs from the Latin ‘Imperium’ which suggests the Authority or Supreme Power of an empire(3), rather than the personal ownership of the Emperor. This has implications in the societal values of Rome. The title Imperator was first held by great Generals of the Republic given by the senate to military statesmen like Pompey and Caesar. Moreover, following the transformation into autocracy was an important part of displaying the Emperor as empowered only due to the ‘democratic’ proceedings of the senate, being acknowledged as imperator by the senate, despite having total power. The result was that Imperium was created to sustain the democratic facade and military profile of the Emperor. This gives us an enlightening insight to the Roman values of military command in their leader. The facade of democracy is shown to have remained with the word ‘Imperium’, despite the autocratic power of an Imperator and this also demonstrates the contained democratic values held by the Romans. The viscosity of Roman society’s democratic values is well seen in the reception of the Emperor Domitian who was condemned to oblivion following his death for not acknowledging the senate’s ceremonial powers. But this begs the question, what can historians learn from studying Language of Empire? At face value it presents the values and interaction of past societies. Importantly, the etymology of Empires globally shows the variety of what can be defined as an empire.

One of these variations of Empire is an Empire of resources. Although they are difficult to examine due to their age and subsequent mythisation, historians can see the importance of Empires of Resources in some of the earliest examples of Imperialism. The Akkadian Empire which united the Eastern Mesopotamian city states from its capital in Akkad(6) was an empire built on water due both to Akkad’s position between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and its use of water to expand its power. Akkad’s favourable position between the rivers allowed it to project power downstream, being able to threaten its neighbouring city states, cities dependent on water for their agriculture, with the prospect of drought. This perception of the Akkadian Empire being built on resources is supported by the idea of ‘agro-imperialism’ suggested by Harvey Weist. We see a reflection of this exact strategy in a modern-day Empire of Resources, Ethiopia. Ethiopia is doing this by its construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile river. This will, like the positioning of Akkad between the Tigris and Euphrates, reap large benefits for Ethiopia ,with the dam providing 74 billion cubic metres of water and creating a 6,000 kw energy capacity(7). But by studying past Empires of resources Historians can see that  the dam can also serve an imperial purpose, like the Akaddian dominance of agriculture. Russia’s irredentist war in Ukraine achieves more than reclaiming their cultural Empire or defending their borders against Nato invaders. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions which Russia occupies and claims to belong, and want to belong, to them(8), have recently been discovered to be home to deposits of  over 500,000 tons of lithium. Lithium is a key component in creating batteries for electric cars. Through control of these areas Russia, strengthens its Empire of Resources in the present, due to the large coal and gas reserves located in Eastern Ukraine, as well as its Empire of Resources for the future. The importance of this conflict in Global affairs demonstrates the importance of studying Empires of the Past as a reflection of current imperialism.

Empires of Business are a more recent development of imperialism, meaning Empires built by corporations and business. A dangerous example of Business Imperialism which historians can learn from are Chartered Companies,(9)which were instrumental in European colonial Empires and responsible for some of their worst atrocities. Chartered companies were corporations which were usually developed in order to benefit from trade in far flung areas. By definition they were set up by the state, being chartered meaning they had received a royal admission. This allowed these companies to operate as semi-governmental states with the ability to mint coins, raise armies, fight wars and establish colonies. With a technological advantage and large armies funded by the European monopoly on trade, Companies like the Dutch East Indies Company or the British East India Company developed large colonial Empires. However, although they had the power and land of a nation state, they did not have the intentions of a nation state and, unlike governmental empires, held little regard for people and politics but more regard for profits. These intentions led to some of the most atrocious acts of colonialism, the Dutch invasion of the Banda Islands or the brutal response to the Sepoy mutiny,(10) to name a few. With little regard for human life other than its economic worth, the attitude of business Imperialism further dehumanised colonial ‘natives’. Although we must be careful not to remove the blame for recent colonial empires away from the Governments of Western Europe, Corporate Empires played a large part in colonialism. The renewed danger of Imperialistic business can be seen in the recent development of companies such as SpaceX(11) into companies competing with Nasa, and each other (12), to reach Mars. With our solar system arguably being the future of colonialism, the role of businesses in its exploration and innovation is expanding these companies into an imperial presence. With the power corporations can impose in the Modern Day the argument could be made that TransNational Corporations often act like sovereign states. This is discussed  by Alain Denult who exposes the  imperialistic  power of corporations through his examination of French Oil Giant, Total, in his article ‘Corporations as private sovereign powers:the case of total’(13).

The third and final sect of imperialism historians can learn from are Empires of Culture. Although Empire is often synonymous with the destruction of Culture, in reference to colonialism, Empires are incredibly dynamic in the spread and integration of culture. Empires of conquest allowed the spread of nomadic tribes which form the foundation of much of Asia and Europe’s cultures and provide diversity in cultural groups. The study of Empires like Rome, Achaemenid, Khmer or Macedon are also valuable for understanding culture as they create a cultural Empire which creates an identity. Culture, as well as being understood through empire, can also be an Empire in its own right. The impression of Rome was used countless times throughout western History as a symbol of power and empire. Through language, values and structure Rome was emulated and still is emulated by countries today… The USA as a modern Superpower often draws comparisons to Rome. Its cultural Empire is similar to Rome’s in that the domineering aspect of their imperialism lies in the strength and dominance of their culture. This applies to the USA more than Rome as, in an era where the Empire is shunned, America dominates with its culture to a larger extent. The importance of this reflection of cultural imperialism is also relevant to the US’s future after its inevitable, and foreseeable, downfall. Like Rome, the USA’s downfall seems to be coming due to its clash of cultures internally. Similar to Rome, the USA’s cultural Empire is likely to live on past the Empire’s hard power. Indeed, the USA’s hegemony on culture is already evident with the USA’s introduction of the role of presidency as an alternative to parliamentary democracy. This shows the relevance of cultural imperialism in our society and its power, even without an adjoining physical Empire.

The variety of Empires one can access demonstrates the way that studying Empire is important in understanding the past. This is not just due to its imperial ‘glory’, often lauded by past studies, but because of its impact on the World around it, most fundamentally when looking both through the study of Great Man history and its opposing People’s History. Empires in all their forms are objectively important in the study of History as their rises, falls and structures are undeniably powerful factors in human history.

Maggie’s essay – Can it ever be morally acceptable to sacrifice an innocent person for some greater good?

The greater good theory has its roots in utilitarianism and if we used utilitarianism to determine the greater good it would be defined as what brings the greatest ‘happiness’ for the greatest number. However, the philosopher John Mill split utilitarianism into act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism which may change how we perceive the greater good. Act utilitarianism defines an action that brings the greatest ‘pleasure and happiness’ for the greater number as acceptable and right. Whereas rule utilitarianism creates rules which deliver the greatest, more elevated, happiness to the greatest number. Furthermore, the same could be said for what is “morally acceptable’ – the concept of moral acceptability changes from person to person and therefore makes it hard to definitively say whether something is morally acceptable because there is always a faction of people that will not be satisfied. Indeed, it can also be said that the same individual will find the same act both morally acceptable and unacceptable depending on their emotional proximity to the person being affected by the act.

Applying act and rule utilitarianism to the question of whether it can be morally acceptable to sacrifice an innocent person for the greater good allows us to explore the different answers and solutions we find. If we used the theory of act utilitarianism the question ‘Can it ever be morally acceptable to sacrifice an innocent person for some greater good’ would be answered with ‘yes’. Act utilitarianism is the theory that any act that results in the greatest ‘happiness or pleasure’ for the greatest number is morally the right thing to do. For example, imagine there is a homeless man and all of his organs are fully functioning. However, there is a doctor who has six patients that all need organ transplants to survive.  Act utilitarianism would say that it is morally acceptable to kill that homeless man and give his organs to the terminally ill patients. This would result in the greatest ‘happiness and pleasure’ for the greatest number and it fits the scenario of sacrificing an innocent person for some ‘greater good’. Although, as a structured and lawful society we know that this is not “morally acceptable” and a weakness to the theory, that many philosophers agree with, is that act utilitarianism results in and aims for a lesser form of good, one that is less ‘rounded’ and focuses more on pleasure.

On the other hand, rule utilitarianism is seen as resulting in a more ‘rounded’ and elevated form of happiness which focuses more on wellbeing rather than pleasure. It’s a greater form of good. This form of utilitarianism uses ‘rules’ that generally result in the greatest form of happiness for the greatest number. The rules are there because they tend to influence our actions to lead to better consequences for society/the group and limit the number of exceptions made in individual instances that lead to less beneficial consequences.  Looking back at the example above, the elevated form of ‘happiness and wellbeing’ in Rule utilitarianism would argue that the ‘lesser’ pleasure experienced by the patients resulting from their receipt of the homeless man’s organs is outweighed by the level of pain experienced by the homeless man being sacrificed.  Thus, rule utilitarianism concludes in this situation that it is not morally acceptable to sacrifice someone for the greater good. However, in different and more apt situations such as in war times we may reach a different conclusion.

The greater good theory is often applied in times of war: sacrifice the lives of the few to save the lives of the many.  One example is the nuclear bombings in World War Two. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were innocent civilians. They were also, importantly, non-combatants. This could be argued to be an example on a huge scale of sacrificing innocents for the greater good because it brought the war to an almost immediate end, saving thousands more innocent lives than were lost as a result of dropping 2 atomic bombs.  Tom Lewis, an author who investigated the efficacy of the bombings, argues that it saved roughly 30 million lives.  However, we know from the initial destruction that this bomb caused and the effects on future generations (such as: increased rates in birth deficiencies, cancers, chronic illnesses) that this cannot be morally acceptable. This is because it is still affecting innocent people decades later with no greater good resulting from their suffering.  Although this opens the argument that whilst it may not ever be morally acceptable to sacrifice innocent people it may be politically and economically acceptable. From Peter Singer’s perspective, a utilitarianist point of view, the right decision is the one which satisfies the greatest number of interests. Peter Singer often advocates that the right decision may not necessarily be moral or immoral, rather it is just the right decision to make. In this case if we applied Peter Singer’s view, 30 million lives saved due to the sacrifice of 226,000 lives would mean that the decision may not have been moral, but it was right.

Peter Singer’s reasoning links quite closely with situation ethics and I would like to explore this branch of reasoning.  Situation ethics holds that moral judgements must be made within the context of the entirety of the situation in and about which they are made.  It is quite different to rule utilitarianism which focuses on having rules that decide right and wrong before the action.  Situation ethics first focuses on taking the situation into account and then deciding the rules for right and wrong. This form of reasoning means that what may be moral/immoral for one situation may lead to the opposite conclusion in another situation.  It is often put into use in times like war, culture and self-defence. If we answered the wartime question with situation ethics, there would be no definitive answer because the situation would be constantly changing and for each case there would be a different answer. In addition, the answer provided by situation ethics might be dependent on the perspective of those posing the question.  For example, the west finds Russia’s invasion of Ukraine completely immoral whereas the Russian government find it entirely morally acceptable due to the need to protect their own territorial and political integrity as well as addressing historical wrongs.  Moreover, I think there are limitations to situation ethics, especially when answering this question. For example, what if you had to choose between sacrificing an innocent person and the lives of ten civilians. Situation ethics would say this is morally acceptable to sacrifice the one innocent person because the lives of the many outweigh the life of the few. However, what if you had to choose between sacrificing an innocent person to save the lives of ten serial killers, is this still morally acceptable? Due to situation ethics having no ‘rules’ depending on who looked into this case and how they used situation ethics it could be argued either way as to whether it is moral or not. One side of the argument could be that the serial killers are criminals and immoral so the innocent person should be saved instead. On the other hand, situation ethics could be used to say that in this situation it does not matter if they are immoral the lives of the many still outweigh that one life.

Alternatively, a more religious and cultural approach to this question could lead us down different path. Certain cultures believe that sacrificing an innocent person or animal is the only way to bring peace and/or prosperity. For example, the Inca, sacrificed children, and generally children of chiefs, during or after important events. Not only did they believe this would maintain and build a relationship with their Gods, which they thought helped to prevent natural disasters, but they also believed that it sent the sacrificed child to an afterlife where they would inhabit a better, and more abundantly provided for, world. Looking at this from a philosophical view we cannot tell them their religion is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ and what they did is morally unacceptable because to them they were helping their tribe, family, and children. In this case, the factor of culture makes the question – can it ever be morally acceptable to sacrifice an innocent person for some greater good – answerable with “yes.”  After all, the child went to a better place, (the afterlife), and the outcome meant that the tribe was successful in maintaining a strong relationship with their gods.

Lastly, I make this point: in order to provide some guidance most governments have passed laws that provide almost total sanctity for individual life and don’t allow for situations involving the sacrifice of one life for the lives of others, unless one’s own life is being threatened by another person. The law doesn’t offer much flexibility and acting on your moral compass could often pose a legal risk to your freedom. At a group level, even during COVID there was never a moral debate when the lockdowns were imposed to prevent the spread of the disease. It could be argued that there were additional excess deaths caused by lockdowns due to the reduction in healthcare provided to those suffering from other illnesses with no consideration as to the morality of the policy. 

On balance, after having explored many forms of reasoning such as situation ethics, culture, and war I have found that it has only left me with more questions than answers. In particular I would like to highlight the idea of culture because how can one culture be right, and another be wrong? Which leads me to the conclusion that the answer can only ever be a personal one dependent on each individual’s personal beliefs and values combined with the situation in which the question is posed. 

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