Moral choices and foreign languages

I had a very interesting chat about free will the other day after reading this post, and I could not avoid relating it to what recent studies revealed about the influence of foreign languages over decision‑making processes. As Joseph says, when talking about hypothetically sharing his money with his neighbour because it is the best thing for both of them,

There are virtually no major questions in human lives that resolve themselves so neatly. Over and over, we find ourselves with incomplete information, making choices that may not lead to their intended outcomes. It is a vast enterprise of trial-and-error, and since nobody has that much more information than anyone else, it is essential to let individuals try things out for themselves, including stupid things.

We, therefore, make choices freely because we are ignorant and we have no complete knowledge of all the implications and consequences of those choices. If we had, we would always choose the greater good, because why shouldn’t we? Of course, we are now presented with a more complicated, and probably more saddening, issue: this freedom is nothing more than an illusion, since we still try to go for the greater good, and we consider different options just because we are not sure which one would lead us to that.

This brings us to the study co-published by the University of Chicago and the Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Some years ago, the UChicago had already published a study about the influence of foreign languages when people are confronted to risk‑taking decisions. This time, they analysed moral choices using two versions of the so called “trolley dilemma.” In the extreme one, the subjects, native speakers of English with Spanish as foreign language, were presented with this scenario: they are standing on a footbridge and they can see that a train is going to kill five people. Then, they were asked, in one of the two languages, what they would do if the only way to save them were to push another man on the tracks. The ones presented with the dilemma in their foreign language were more inclined to go for the utilitarian choice of actively sacrificing one person to save five. The team of the UPF ran the same test, independently, with native speakers of Spanish with English as a second language, and obtained an even higher percentage of people that would choose to actively sacrifice a human being to save five when asked in a foreign language.

The results go in the same direction as the ones of other researches like the one that showed that the use of swear words seems less offensive in a foreign language, because there is less emotional implication than there is when interacting in the native one. The reason would seem to be that we learn our mother tongue in an emotional environment, and we use it when, growing up, we develop our emotions and we have our first interactions. For example, we have our first arguments and we express our feelings using our L1. Sayuri Hayakawa, co‑author of the study at UChicago, says:

You learn your native language as a child, and it is part of your family and your culture. You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom, and it takes extra effort. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation.

Of course, these results have a huge importance in a globalised world, especially because international decisions are often made in a foreign language. In this respect, the two authors of the study say:

This discovery has important consequences for our globalised world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages.  (Keysar, UChicago)

Deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery. (Costa, UPF)

Back to our main subject of moral freedom, these results seem to support Joseph’s ideas: the experiment is hypothetical, so we have no political limitation, we can choose to kill a man without legal repercussions, and the only limit is our moral judgement. The fact of being less familiar with the foreign language, of being in a context of wider ignorance we could say, gives us more freedom of choice, loosening the grip of moral judgement. It remains to be analysed if our choices vary according to our level of fluency in the foreign language: are we more emotionally involved the more we improve our mastery of the L2? I still doubt the famous “war is peace, freedom is slavery,” but it definitely seems true that “ignorance is strength!”



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  1. Vi el Aleph, desde todos los puntos, vi en el Aleph la tierra, y en la tierra otra vez el Aleph y en el Aleph la tierra, vi mi cara y mis vísceras, vi tu cara, y sentí vértigo y lloré, porque mis ojos habían visto ese objeto secreto y conjetural, cuyo nombre usurpan los hombres, pero que ningún hombre ha mirado: el inconcebible universo.

    Sentí infinita veneración, infinita lástima.

    En la calle, en las escaleras de Constitución, en el subterráneo, me parecieron familiares todas las caras. Temí que no quedara una sola cosa capaz de sorprenderme, temí que no me abandonara jamás la impresión de volver. Felizmente, al cabo de unas noches de insomnio, me trabajó otra vez el olvido.

    I saw the Aleph, from all points, I saw the Earth in the Aleph, and in the Earth the Aleph once more, I saw my face and my innards, I saw your face, I became dizzy and I wept, because with my own eyes I’d seen that hypothesized, secret object, known to all men by name, but which no man has seen: the inconceivable universe.

    I felt infinite awe, infinite pity.

    On the street, on the stairways of the Constitucion, on the subway, I felt as if I recognized eveery one of the faces. I was afraid that nothing on Earth could surprise me any longer, that what I had seen would never cease to return. Thankfully, after a few sleepless nights, the work of oblivion was complete once more.

    –Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Joseph Kugelmass)


  2. I could answer that you are presenting all those counter-situations because this interaction is happening in English, which is your native language, and that you know about the study, so it is invalid. Also, I could say that, in the scenario, the man is a heavy man, so I am not sure throwing yourself instead would help saving the other five.
    On another note, I could say that I agree with you on the fact that it doesn’t matter how much knowledge of the language I have, I find irritating having to answer to this kind of questions which don’t consider plenty of variables: why are those people tied to the tracks, and who tied them? Is the man on my side heavy enough, or am I going to end up killing 6 instead of 5 if the train doesn’t stop? Just today I took one of those silly tests that we find daily on Facebook. I hate tests, I normally don’t take them, exactly as I don’t read the horoscope, but I have fun seeing how hard they work to get it all wrong. Today’s work of art was about my subconscious nationality, and I was asked which one was my favourite drink, Coke, wine, beer, sake or whisky. Well, I love water, then I love tea and juices equally, then cider (UK, US would just be juice for me) and wine. So, yeah, I choose wine, what better choice did I have? Then, of course, between Pikachu, Pepé le Pew, Super Mario, Mickey Mouse, and Schnappi the little crocodile, I chose to date the latter. I don’t know who that is, but he can’t be worse than the rest! But all of that made me think why on Earth should I be limited to date this bunch of weirdos? Hasn’t life shown that I can be more seductive than that? Anyway, these kind of scenarios make no sense because they don’t correspond to reality, so the answer, no matter from what it is influenced, is irrelevant per se and only useful to confirm some other theory, the difference in moral when dealing with a foreign language, or the fact that sometimes dating sucks (if that was the higher meaning of that test!)
    As I said, I would agree with you, but then you present the example of the “not naming the animal you are going to slaughter”, and all the cruelty from my childhood came back to mind. All that giving me as presents lambs and sheep that I would name and that magically always ended up going back to the shepherd when it was time to have a nice stew. It is the second time I have to relive this trauma because of you, and this time I don’t even have a Tequila Sunrise in front so, you know what? I won’t agree with you, no matter how right you are!



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