Five Americans held as hostages by Iran have been returned to the United States following a political deal in which President Joe Biden agreed to unfreeze US$6 billion in Iranian funds held in South Korean banks in exchange for the prisoners.
Hostage-taking has been frequently used by both states and insurgent groups as a means to extract funds or concessions from more powerful states. Iran took 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage in 1979 and held them for over a year.
In recent years, foreign citizens have been taken hostage in countries such as Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As a political philosopher, I am interested in the morality of using funds to secure the release of hostages. The appeal of doing so is powerful, but the long-term moral costs of acceding to the demands of hostage-takers is frequently even more significant.
There are some powerful moral reasons to argue that trading money for hostages is morally defensible. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant takes the fundamental tenet of morality to be that human beings are ethically distinct from goods, such as money. Under this lens, Biden may have done the right thing by choosing to give up money in exchange for the safety and liberty of these hostages.
The payments may also be justified with reference to the moral purposes of the state itself. If the central job of any political government is to protect its citizens, then a government that did not work to repatriate its citizens held abroad might be seen as failing to do its job.
However, strong arguments can also be brought to bear against the practice of paying for the release of hostages. Utilitarian philosophers argue that public policy ought to focus on maximizing human happiness and well-being – not simply now, but over time. If hostage-takers are rewarded, it is entirely possible that they will choose to take more hostages in the future.
The release of $6 billion to the government of Iran will bring significant benefits for the present hostages and their families. It may also, however, ensure a stream of future hostages, for whom similar ethical calculations must be made.
There are further ethical worries that stem from the use of that $6 billion. Any group that is willing to take hostages could well engage in other morally questionable practices as well.
The government of Iran, for instance, has come under recent criticism for its financial support for violent, nonstate, regional agents - including, notably, Hezbollah, designated as a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union. Additionally, there are allegations that Iran provided military support to Russia during its ongoing war against Ukraine.