On Jan. 20, 2015, the Islamic State released a video demanding $200 million from the Japanese government in exchange for the release of two of the nation’s citizens, Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa.
Japan did not comply. Three days before, the country’s leadership had pledged $200 million to countries battling ISIS. In regard to the hostages, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to uphold traditional policy measures.
“We will continue to take all possible measures from a standpoint of respecting human life,” he said. “Whatever the case is, the international community adamantly must not give in to terror. We need to cooperate and tackle it.”
ISIS’s apparent response? Beheading.
The needs of the many
So why would a government, an entity constructed with the ostensible purpose of serving its citizenry, deny paying a ransom for the lives of two of its citizens?
Abe may have been acting pragmatically.
First, fulfilling a ransom demand could embolden future kidnappers. As Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider wrote in an online article for CNN: “every time a ransom is paid it increases the chance that other hostages will be taken to help fill the coffers of a terrorist group.”
It may not be rational for a state to pay ransom, especially if the government is seeking to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of its citizens. Because of this, there may be a moral obligation not to pay up, as doing so would put others’ safety at risk.
This argument is one of utilitarianism, where the ethical action provides for the greatest good, or utility, for all those who are effected, regardless of the actions needed to ensure this supposed ultimate good.
An argument from deontology, the philosophy that an action is morally good based on its inherent value as opposed to the expected outcome it produces, could possibly come to a similar conclusion, as well.
A deontologist might say that a government has a moral obligation to keep itself from directly financing terrorism. By giving $200 million into the hands of ISIS, the Japanese government would have done just that. Their action, under this rationale, would have been morally impermissible.
On the other hand, a deontologist might say the very act of refusing to pay a ransom for the safe return of a prisoner is morally deficient itself. Because a deontologist would argue actions themselves are more important than indirect outcomes, the action of guaranteeing, or at the very least increasing the odds of, a hostage’s safe return would override any objection based on the possible future negative outcomes — in this case, the increased possibility of future hostage scenarios.
But should one be morally blameworthy for such foreseeable, though unintended, future consequences?
The Trolley Problem
Contemporary philosopher Philippa Foot proposed a thought experiment to test the ethical value of inaction.
A summary of the hypothetical, called the “Trolley Problem,” later appeared in The Yale Law Journal:
“Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don’t work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately, Mrs. Foot has arranged that there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him. Is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley?”
Foot argues, from a standpoint of deontology, that it is not morally permissible to turn the trolley from its current course. Under her reasoning, people are not responsible for outcomes of their inaction, but are responsible for outcomes of their direct action.
Foot has used this same theoretical thought experiment to convey her disapproval of aborting an unborn fetus under any circumstance, claiming the act of abortion is inherently impermissible, even if medically necessary to save the life of the mother.
We can assume Foot, by her own logic, must approve of paying ransom to ISIS. Under her reasoning, the correct action is the one that has the best direct outcome. Paying up would free a hostage from likely death — a positive deed. Never mind the fact that bolstering terrorism in such a way would result in more hostages and increased monetary capacity on the part of the terrorist group; these occurrences aren’t direct causes of the government’s action, and they certainly aren’t intended.
But Foot’s reasoning is flawed.
On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside of her New York City apartment building, reportedly screaming for her life well within earshot of a significant number of bystanders. Although subsequent accounts contradicted the original report, the case, erroneous its details may be, is still instructive.
Similar incidents encouraged governments to intervene. In the United States, all 50 states now have some sort of “Good Samaritan” law that, roughly, requires a bystander to aid someone in distress unless helping would also put the bystander at risk of harm.
There’s a tendency in most people to avoid reaching out to those in need if the situation is already public. Psychologists call this the “bystander effect.”
One problem with Foot’s “Trolley Problem” is that it directly contradicts our domestic legal system, as evidenced by the “Good Samaritan” laws. Foot, through her own reasoning, would say there was no moral obligation for any of the bystanders in the Genovese case to help prevent the stabbing, not even by merely calling the police.
An average person wouldn’t agree; there exists some minimal obligation to aid those in need, especially in cases where the cost of helping is low.
Reductio ad absurdum says an argument can fail if its necessary consequences are absurd. Foot’s conclusion is nonsensical. We must doubt her argument, as well.
In dealing with ISIS and their demands of ransom, we must consider the further harm that would result, even if indirectly, from our paying the price for a hostage’s release.
Most western countries, with the exception of France, already refuse ransom by this very logic.
It’s the right call.