Simanaitis Says

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DO OUR morals depend on which language we’re speaking? Can something be ethically acceptable in a second language, but not in our native tongue?

Researchers in cognitive sciences say “yes,” as reported in “Your Morals Depend on Language,” an article in PLOS ONE ( Albert Costa of Barcelona’s Center of Brain and Cognition at Pompeu Farba University and colleagues there and at the University of Chicago performed the research; he and co-researcher Boaz Keysar also gave details in “Our Moral Tongue,” The New York Times, June 20, 2014 (


At the basis of their research is the Trolley Dilemma. First posed by British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot in 1967, the Trolley Dilemma has several ethical variations. Costa and colleagues used the following.


A variation of the Trolley Dilemma. Image from Advocatus Atheist (

A trolley is hurtling down a track toward five people unseen by its driver. You are on a bridge under which it will pass. You can stop the trolley—and save the five people—in only one way: by pushing the fat man next to you off the bridge onto the tracks. (It’s assumed the fat guy’s demise would stop the train; your self-sacrifice would not.)

By killing one person, you can save five. Should you proceed?

Ethicists have argued about this for decades. Costa and his colleagues devised an experiment posing the dilemma to groups of bilingual subjects, some in their native tongue, others in their non-native language.

The researchers found that those presented the dilemma in their non-native language were more likely to sacrifice the fat guy than those presented the dilemma in their native tongue.

In Barcelona, native Spanish speakers studying English, as well as English speakers studying Spanish, were randomly assigned to read the dilemma in English or Spanish. Reading it in their native tongue, only 18 percent would doom the fat guy; in their second language, 44 percent would.

Other colleagues at the University of Chicago found similar results with languages as diverse as Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, as well as English and Spanish. In total, with more than 1000 participants, the moral choice was influenced by the dilemma being posed in a native or non-native tongue.

Does the second language provide an emotional distance, with a less visceral choice to save the five people?

If so, the researchers reasoned, the difference in choices would shrink if the dilemma were less extreme.


A second variation of the Trolley Dilemma. Image from Advocatus Atheist (

They performed the same experiment, only this time your option is to divert the trolley onto the fat guy’s track, rather than actively shoving him off the bridge.

With this modified dilemma, 80 percent of participants chose sacrificing the fat guy to save the five, their decisions identical in native and non-native presentations.

The researchers emphasize they’re not identifying which choice is ethically correct. Rather, that “Extreme moral dilemmas are supposed to touch the very core of our moral being.”

But they also cite Nelson Mandela’s advice about negotiation: “If you talk to a man in the language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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