Any payment of a ransom to a kidnapper or pirate is entirely immoral. The person who does so deserves harsh moral criticism, up to and including actual punishment. (In other words, it should be illegal to pay a ransom.)
This post is inspired by the profitable criminal activity of pirating ships off of the coast of Africa, though it concerns a wider range of issues in fact.
That which we reward, we feed and nourish, is that which we get more of. And that which we condemn and starve, withers and (hopefully) dies. We certainly have no reason to see kidnapping and piracy become the status-quo as its practitioners gain wealth that isn’t available to people holding honest jobs. The proper policy is to starve this particular profession, to refuse to deal with it.
This is not a question of paying money to secure the health and well-being of a loved one. This is a question of buying something for oneself using methods that do harm to others. It's a matter of securing the health of one's own loved one by pushing an innocent person in front of a bus. Because, by paying ransom – by rewarding and promoting the business of kidnapping and extortion as useful business practices – one is funding for the kidnapping of the next person in line. The ransom-payer is the financier of the next kidnapping and, if the next kidnapping goes badly, should be considered an accessory to the murder.
In making this claim, I am not simply saying, "Do not pay a ransom." Hopefully, nobody within eyeshot of this blog will ever face the question of whether to pay a ransom or not.
I am saying that one should hold the person who pays a ransom up to the same condemnation and ridicule that one would give to the kidnappers themselves. We condemn the kidnappers because their dispositions make our lives (and the lives of other innocent people) less secure – subjecting us to thwartings of our desires that we have reason to avoid.
The ransom player does the same thing – showing the same disregard for our welfare that the kidnappers and pirates have shown – showing that our suffering is insignificant.
The ransom payer is like the person who invests in a factory that fills the air with a (social) poison that puts the health of others at risk. The risks created for others gives those others reason to condemn the activities that create the risk, to make the risk less common, and hopefully to eliminate it entirely.
The issue brings up a feature of desire utilitarianism that I have not talked about much. Desire utilitarianism holds that there will be instances of moral conflict – where a person will have a moral duty to engage in or refrain from some action, and not like it.
I word has to be said about the possibility of a parent giving up a child, or anybody giving up some other member of the same family. These are particularly tough demands to be placed on people.
Desire utilitarianism argues for promoting certain desires that tend to fulfill other desires. It is quite possible to have two desires that tend to fulfill other desires on most circumstances. Yet, there can still be rare circumstances where two desires that a person ought to have – and ought to have in abundance – can come into conflict.
Consider the case of a parent who has had a child kidnapped and is being asked for a ransom. The desire to keep one's children safe and to sacrifice (particularly to sacrifice money) for their benefit is a worthy desire – one we have reason to promote. However, the aversion to put other people at risk – particularly other children at risk – is a desire we have reason to encourage as well. To the degree that others are averse to doing harm to children, to that degree our children are safer.
Nature clearly provides us with some natural disposition to care for our children. However, that which nature provides to us is (in desire utilitarian terms) outside of the realm of morality. It is something to which the concepts of praise and blame do not apply.
However, whatever our natural (non-moral) disposition to care for children happens to be, we have reason to ask whether this natural disposition needs to be augmented through social forces. It is here where the question of caring for the well-being of children becomes a moral question. If our natural disposition to care for children is too strong, then society needs to be engineered to inhibit this desire. If it is too week, then we have reason to use praise and condemnation to strengthen it.
So, even natural dispositions can have a moral dimension.
On the issue of caring for the welfare of (one’s) children, the physical evidence suggests that, while we have a natural disposition to care for children, that natural disposition needs some help. There are far too many instances of children being harmed to hold that our natural disposition is sufficiently strong and no moral element remains. We do real-world reason to add to the natural affection that parents have to care for their children.
The good person would find it difficult to be indifferent about whether or not to pay the ransom. The care that she has for her child would give her strong incentive to give in. At the same time, she should recognize that the people she is paying the ransom to will simply use it to secure some other victim. Here, the aversion to doing things that put others (particularly their children) at risk of great harm, even death.
The good person would be in a state of moral conflict. Any person who can blindly choose one or the other with without concern or regret does not fit the qualifications for a good person.
However, the existence of a moral conflict does not change the fact that people generally have more and stronger reasons to have the conflict resolved against paying the ransom. Even the person whose family member had been kidnapped has reason to condemn others who paid a ransom – others who made the type of crime of which he is now a victim more common (by making it more profitable) than it would have otherwise been.
As a result of the considerations given above, this becomes a type of case where we may need to focus our attention on external sanctions rather than internal sanctions in order to get people to behave the way we have reason to cause them to behave. Specifically, this implies that it may be a good idea to impose criminal penalties on those who pay ransom, or arrange for ransoms to be paid. Those people are creating a moral environment for the rest of us to live in where we have more reason to fear for our safety and those we care about than we would have if those who demanded ransom would never receive any.
Of course, there is still reason to condemn those who aid people in paying ransom. These agencies are creating a hazard for others, and this is reason enough to regulate the industry so as to protect the consumers from those costs.
The U.S. Government itself has an official policy that it will not negotiate with those who take hostages. I consider this a wise plan, and a plan that should be copied in the private sector. We all have reason to condemn the (leaders of the) country or company who give in and pay ransom to these types of people.