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Language as an Influence on Moral Judgment

A moral dilemma is defined or considered to be a situation whereby “an agent regards herself as having moral reasons to do each of two actions, but doing both actions is not possible.”  (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). These dilemmas essentially involve a decision where either course of action will breach or impede on some moral principle. You would assume that, when faced with a moral dilemma, people’s decisions would be consistent regardless of language as long as they understand the situation. Studies on groups of bilingual speakers have shown, however, that people  are more likely to make a utilitarian decision when presented with a moral dilemma in a foreign language (i.e. a language other than their native tongue).

In order to study this difference in decision-making based on language, a thought experiment was conducted that involved research participants being presented with and asked to respond to a moral dilemma in either their native tongue or a learned or foreign language. This study was conducted on a variety of language combinations including English-speaking Americans who also spoke Spanish, French citizens who also spoke English, Korean citizens who spoke both English and Korean and Israelis who spoke both Hebrew and English. This scenario involved imagining oneself at the top of a foot bridge that extends over a train track. Below this bridge, an out of control train is heading towards a group of five helpless people. These five people can be saved by pushing one large person off of the bridge in front of the train, The choice is therefore deciding whether to kill one man in order to save the lives of five others.

The results of this study lead to some very interesting conclusions and observations. In each of the study groups, and within each of the language combinations, the subjects were more likely to choose the utilitarian option, killing one person for the greater good of the group, when the moral dilemma was presented in the foreign language. The difference in the decision to kill one person vs. killing five was rather large, with 18% choosing to push the large man to his death when presented with the dilemma in their native tongue and 44% choosing to push him when presented the scenario in their second language.  Aside from cultural differences and varying cultural values, another reason behind the influence of language on moral judgment could be a gap in emotional resonance, as people are more likely to have higher emotional resonance and responses to situations in their native tongue, which makes sense at it  is the familiarity of their mother tongue that makes them more susceptible to emotional decision making..

This conclusion that our moral judgment can be influenced by the language that you speak is one that comes as a surprise and seems almost illogical, until you start considering the impact language has on the way we think. The ramifications of this study, needless to say, are immense. It just goes to show how diverse, interesting, and important languages are in every aspect of our lives.

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