Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Piracy and the Paying of Ransoms

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.

Conflicting Duties

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.

External Prohibitions

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.


Anonymous said...

As a practical matter, I suspect that banning ransom payments will do little to reduce the number of kidnappings that end in paid ransoms. It seems like a classic "tragedy of the commons" scenario: one ransom payment does little to change whether kidnappers expect to be paid, and it is in the interest of the kidnap victim's associates to pay the ransom. In order to have any real effect, the ransom payment rate would have to be driven to near zero, and think any institution capable of doing that would also be able to prevent the kidnappings in the first place.

In practice, banning ransom payments would simply lead to people not contacting the authorities when somebody they care about is being held for ransom, and not to fewer ransoms being paid.

I also found a counterargument on the Web; it's from an organization that sells kidnap insurance, so make of it what you will.

From http://www.hiscox.com/hiscox-asm/41.html:

Aren't there some countries where paying a ransom is illegal?

Yes, there are. However, the first objective of our policy is always the safety of the victim and in all countries the authorities recognise that victims of kidnapping have a right to life. Most will allow the payment of a ransom on humanitarian grounds.

In fact, merely banning the payment of ransoms does very little to curb the problem of kidnap. Many factors determine whether the environment is conducive to the crime. In some countries where ransom payments are illegal, there are still many incidents of the crime because of social conditions and relatively inexperienced law enforcement agencies that are unable to cope with the problem. Evidence clearly suggests that making the payments of ransoms illegal does not reduce kidnappings - it merely drives the activity underground and encourages families to pay illegally behind the backs of the authorities.

Furthermore, ransom negotiations with kidnappers can be a very useful weapon in gaining information about them, which can lead to their eventual arrest and conviction. This is certainly the case in the US where the FBI allows discussions about ransom as a way to open up the criminals' identity, with the result that most US kidnappers are caught.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that this is an over-simplified view. Why stop there? By your reasoning, If I am confronted with a criminal demanding money from me whilst pointing a gun at my child's head I should refuse - or be condemnned (to the same degree as the criminal) for encouraging future criminal behaviour.
I did not set out to pay a criminal for my own gain.

If I were to establish a polluting factory - I would be doing that for my own gain - I am therefore responsible for the by-product of my actions.

It costs many thousands of dollars a year to incarcerate a criminal - more than the average income. An unintended by-product of such incarceration is that less money is available for social welfare.
Desire Utilitarianism suggests we should be condemned as thieves for locking up a criminal?

You also do not take into account the potential that - by cooperating with the authorities and paying the reward, the chances of finding the kidnappers may be increased - thus reducing the likelihood of repeating the crime.

Sweeping generalisations lose the humanity evident in each individual case. Somewhere there is a balance - but I would hesitate to suggest it lies in condemning equally kidnappers and payers.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I must concede your first point . . . that there is a certain amount of irrationality over resisting all criminal activity. It is best, in the case of a street crime, an armed robbery, or a rape, to give in to the criminal's demands at the moment while working generally towards stopping them.

CrypticLife said...

I think you may also be neglecting any probability calculation going on. While it is reasonable to imagine the kidnapper will likely use the funds to secure the next victim, this isn't necessarily so. Selecting and securing victims takes time, and during this time the kidnappers may be caught or experience other events which drive them out of the business, such as their deaths.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cryptic Life

On this issue, I think the argument holds up. The problem is not strictly limited to investing in the next kidnapping. It is the fact that a successful kidnapping provides a financial incentive for others to say, "I think I'll try that." The more profitable a business is, the more it attracts other people into that business. On the other hand, an industry where nobody can make a profit (that generates losses over time) is an industry that eventually dies.

Unless they can get a government bail-out.

The concerns are legitimate. Yet, as Anonymous and the link that Doug S. provided argue, the same applies to the person surrendering to an armed robber or a rapist.

In fact, law enforcement generally tells people to give the criminal what they want while collecting enough information to help the police afterward (or during) the crime.

Which is at odds with what I suggested.

In this case, I think I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

There's a somewhat stronger case to be made for surrendering to an armed robber; if an armed robber kills you, he can still take your money from your corpse. A kidnapper can't do that.