Can Language Affect Morality?

Studies suggest that when we think in a foreign language, our entire sense of “right” and “wrong” changes.
language and morality

Language and morality: is there really a link there? Is morality subjective, or does the compass always bend to a “true north” that exists outside of our cultural biases?

The idea of an objective sense of “right” and “wrong” has a strong hold on our cultural imagination, and it’s one that is central to many major religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Leave it to scientific inquiry, then, to poke some holes in this theory. Various studies have shown that moral judgments can actually change when they’re made in a foreign language, veering toward a more dispassionate, utilitarian take. That’s not to say that foreign languages make us less moral — just that they make us a different kind of moral.

Let’s discuss.

The Trolley Problem

A 2014 study led by Albert Costa posed the following dilemma to a group of volunteers: a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are stuck on the tracks. You have the ability to pull a switch and shift the trolley’s direction, which would result in the death of one person standing on the other set of tracks. Essentially, you’re sacrificing one life in order to save five, resulting in a net of four saved lives.

The vast majority of study participants said they’d pull the switch: 81 percent when presented with the dilemma in their native tongue, and 80 percent when presented in a foreign language.

However, a second (and more contentious) scenario proved to be more polarizing. In this case, you’d have to hypothetically push a large man off of a footbridge and into the trolley’s path, which technically results in the same amount of net saved lives (four), but requires you to play a much more active role in someone’s death. In this case, only 20 percent of participants chose this option in their native language, but 33 percent chose this option in a foreign language.

Obviously, the considerations that went into this inquiry were much more nuanced than this, but the researchers ultimately concluded that using a foreign language makes people less emotional, and more utilitarian, in their moral judgments. They cited a model of moral psychology wherein moral judgments are driven by at least two forces: knee-jerk emotional responses and rational, conscious evaluations. The emotional response is more likely to focus on a person’s human rights, and the rational one is more likely to consider things from the perspective of the greater good.

No Harm, No Foul?

In another study led by Janet Geipel, volunteers were presented with various scenarios in which no one was harmed, but that were widely considered to be morally repulsive: consensual incest, for example. They were also presented with more lenient situations, such as the telling of a white lie to get a reduced fare.

Those who read the stories in a foreign language were less harsh in their moral assessments than those who read them in their native tongues, leading the study authors to conclude that “the influence of foreign language is best explained by a reduced activation of social and moral norms when making moral judgments.”

Language As An Emotional Repository

What these studies reveal, in theory, is that we’re less emotional when we’re thinking and speaking in a language that doesn’t come naturally to us.

According to Costa and his team, this has to do with the fact that we intrinsically slow down our decision-making processes when we switch to a more careful and deliberate mode of processing. The participants were tested for fluency, however, and those who scored poorly were roughly just as likely to opt for a utilitarian moral choice as study participants overall — at least in the “footbridge” dilemma. In the “switch” dilemma, the more proficient speakers made choices that more closely resembled the native speakers.

“In our view, this result suggests that increasing foreign language proficiency may promote emotional grounding, hence eliciting similar emotional reactions to that of a native language,” the study reported.

Boston University psychologist Cathleen Caldwell-Harris also confirms that non-native languages tend to carry less emotional weight: one of her studies, for instance, found that emotionally charged phrases evoked lesser physiological responses in Turkish university students when they were spoken in English versus Turkish.

The theory here is that language is intimately tied to the emotional memories it conveys, so it would make sense that we’d have a heightened emotional response in the language we’re most familiar with — not to mention the language in which our very first emotional experiences were formed.

Should emotions lead the way, or should we always take the objective route? All in all, there’s no easy way to determine whether the best moral judgments stem from compassion or detached, utilitarian logic. But as moral debates rage on, it might help to know where we’re all actually coming from.

You know what's never wrong, though?
Learning A New Language