A Philosopher's Blog

Ransoms & Hostages

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2015

1979 Associated Press photograph showing hosta...

While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.

One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).

One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.

This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.

In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.

While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.

This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.

One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.

Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.


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