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!”