Using A Foreign Language Changes Moral Decisions

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Trooper, May 7, 2014.

  1. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    I've thought about the trolley dilemma many times. This study showed that when the dilemma was presented in a foreign language, you’re more likely to murder an innocent person in order to save five. I don’t speak a foreign language, but I even if I did, I don’t think I would push him. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with you people. How many mods here speak a foreign language? :bugeye:

    The Trolley Dilemma

    "The first experiment presented participants with the "footbridge" scenario of the trolley dilemma. Study participants are asked to imagine they are standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track when they see that an on-coming train is about to kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push a heavy man off the footbridge in front of the train. That action will kill the man, but save the five people. In other words, study participants were faced with the dilemma of choosing between actively sacrificing one person, which violates the moral prohibition against killing, or by inaction allowing five people to die.

    People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language."

    Using A Foreign Language Changes Moral Decisions
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  3. Kittamaru Never cruel nor cowardly... Staff Member

    The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one...

    Though I would beg the question - how does pushing the man off the footbridge spare the other five? Why can't he simply GTFO of the way and let them pass?
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  5. Trooper Secular Sanity Valued Senior Member

    Watch a few seconds of the trolley dilemma video.
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  7. Kittamaru Never cruel nor cowardly... Staff Member

    *nods* Not gonna lie... I completely missed the first link in your initial post... I'm gonna go to bed, I'm less observant than some corpses I know!
  8. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    In which language would you prefer to kill the fat man?

    1. Push the fat man into the path of the train
    2. Empuje el gordo en la ruta del tren
    3. Poussez le gros homme dans la voie du train
    4. Drücken Sie den dicken Mann in den Weg des Zuges
    5. Brúigh an fear saille i an cosán ar an traein

    French for me.
    Last edited: May 7, 2014
  9. mathman Valued Senior Member

    There is an interesting variation of the dilemna. There is a track switch, which you control. If you leave it alone five people will be killed. If you switch to the other track one person will be killed. What do you do?
  10. Kittamaru Never cruel nor cowardly... Staff Member

    Set it to the middle and derail the train...

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    On a more serious note... yeah, no idea... I can't honestly say HOW I would react...too many variables.
  11. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    The dilemma points out an interesting aspect of morality.
    We will sacrifice one life for five, almost every time, but we want the one person to die "accidentally".

    In one variation of the dilemma, you can save five people by pushing one man off a bridge into the track of the train.
    Almost no-one will do that, even though the result is exactly the same as steering the train off onto the side-track.

    Could this be why we choose Psychopaths to lead us in times of war?
    We need people who will think rationally, not morally.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I have often asserted that the language one uses has a significant effect on the way one thinks. The reason is that culture is embedded in language.

    A simple yet profound example is the near-complete absence of gender in Chinese. They don't agonize over the "he/she" problem that bedevils American English, because there's only one pronoun for both genders, ta. They don't even have separate words for "man" and "woman" or "boy" and "girl." If it's necessary to identify the gender of a person/child you just say "male person" or "female person"--"male child" or "female child."

    I'm not sufficiently fluent in any foreign language (except Esperanto, which is not really a "foreign" language because it does not represent any national culture) to guess how I would respond to the dilemma in this exercise. But when I translate a Chinese conversation for one of my monolingual friends, I absolutely do find myself stumbling over the pronouns and wondering why I would so reflexively use "he" in English when the context gives no clue as to gender.

    As for the dilemma, we don't have only moral issues to ponder. The legal issues are overwhelming. In the USA, if you push that fat man onto the track and he dies, I guarantee that you will find yourself in court being prosecuted for murder. If you're convicted and sent to prison, your entire family will lose their breadwinner, your children may become criminals as so many fatherless children do, the family business may fail without your expertise, etc. The impact could be comparable to the deaths of the five people on the track.

    And by the way, just exactly how big is this fellow? How many of you have ever seen a human being large enough to stop a trolley car? In reality you'll end up with six deaths instead of five.

    It's easy to make up hypothetical examples by using exaggeration or outright falsehood.
  13. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    These examples seem to me to account poorly for important aspects of the basis of the existence of morality, as opposed to reliance on reason, in human affairs - especially, in this case, the unavoidable uncertainty of assessments in real life.

    Our morality exists in part precisely because it is never possible for us to say for sure what's going to happen, to assess actions based on entire confidence in our knowledge of the outcome; the decision to not push the guy is then a variant on the principle behind the Hippocratic Admonition: "First, do no harm". And the greater the harm contemplated, the warier one should be. That is often regarded as wisdom, not irrationality.

    That observation then sheds some light on the decision to throw a small switch that (supposedly) changes the train's track

    - the uncertainties on either track are indistinguishable, the situation is unchanged except for the better (everyone was on a track potentially train-bearing, one of six people rather than five of six is now at risk from the train) -

    and on the greater willingness to do immediate harm to prevent future harm when dealing in a foreign language: it looks like a possible variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where one's incompetence in the language conceals the scope of potential uncertainties and possibilities in the reality, simplifies and abstracts the situation.

    The morality of cartoon characters shares this unreality.
  14. Gudikan Registered Member

    Most interesting, and quite understandable. It reminds me of the more general phenomenon of abstraction facilitating inhumanity, so for example the same result would occur if the problem was set up mathematically.

    The root of the problem is the irrationality of man, in particular the reluctance to do harm (as iceaura said) and the non-realisation that inaction is a form of action.

    Indeed. David Icke once quoted a woman who said that reptilian humanoids are ideally suited to such leadership roles, because they can make decisions in a state of detachment from their human consequences.

    Hey Fraggle, could it be that if the EU embraced Esperanto as its official language, the MEPs would become more willing to go to war?

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    Last edited: May 24, 2014
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Nonetheless, a considerable portion of our morality is hard-wired.

    Homo sapiens is a pack-social species like our closest cousins: the two species of chimpanzee and the two species of gorilla. They have an instinct to live in groups for a variety of reasons, notably to present a formidable defensive force to predators, and to apply the principle of economy of scale to child-rearing duties, making life safer and easier for everyone.

    Humans have the same instinct for the same reasons, but those reasons are more powerful for our species:
    • Ever since Aridipithecus developed bipedal walking and experimented with living on the ground, we've lost the prehensile toes that enabled our ancestors to evade predators by quickly ascending into the trees. Thus we require the group-defensive strategies of a pack or herd of herbivores.
    • We've also lost the strength and teeth that might help us fend off a predator. Yet another reason for cooperative behavior.
    • Our brains have grown so big that the brain of a newborn isn't much help in a survival scenario. We are able to survive only with constant care. Unlike whales, who mature in two years, and elephants, who do it in five, our "babies" remain in need of intensive parental supervision for a decade and a half. This requires every adult in the "pack" to share in childrearing duties. Moreover, we're one of very few species in which individuals who are too old to breed remain healthy and active: in other words, in addition to parents, we need grandparents.
    So a large part of our morality has been programmed by evolution. Any individual who doesn't want to live in harmony and cooperation with a tribe, helping and being helped at every turn, is very unlikely to survive long enough to reproduce.

    A few of these individuals vanish into the wilderness with weapons and a wealth of skills and information they've been gathering for years. Some of them survive. This is obviously a recessive trait because even among the people who might be capable of doing this, very few want to.

    Others are sociopaths, who depend on our help and cooperation, but secretly plot to steal from us and even kill us. Obviously this is a recessive trait too. If everyone were trying to steal from everyone else instead of being productive (in addition to devoting a significant portion of their resources to protecting themselves from each other), the community would collapse rather quickly. That's what happened in the old communist countries. My friends there said their mantra was "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." The system collapsed under its own weight in less than a century.

    Dr. Zamenhof would turn over in his grave. He was certain that an easily-learned universal language would bring us together in peace.
  16. Pl3b Registered Member

    Would prefer not stumbling upon having to make the decision at all, butas someone on the fence about taking any action (unless someone I knew were on the trrolley say) this a tougher to decide on. I would not push a human being off the bridge, well, less likely to for certain because of the sentient experience of it: having to come into contact with him or her, seeing trrified expression of innocent bystander etc. Could not do. While pushing a lever is much less personal and therefore more of a utilitarian decision ie save 5 lives at the expense of 1 rather than the other way around. No qualms about the act of lever pushing.

    I don't really get the foreign language part. The study was just conducted in a foreign language. It does seem likely to have higher utilitarian responses than primary language because a person's mind is all ready in info processing mode which is taking up more mental space. But that doesnt translate well, to me, in a real-world scenario. I can somewhat understand a second language and due to the instaneousness of hearing the instruction or notification, cannot imagine having a more or less different kind of grasp due to whichever language, primary or foreign, being in the scenario and to respond with it's imediacy accordingly ie instincts are being largely used. Whereas not at all on paper, how the study was conducted.
  17. GeoffP Caput gerat lupinum Valued Senior Member

    I wasn't sure about the OP concept earlier, but now I think there might well be a case for this. I wonder if it's psychologically a little like the Milgram effect; deindividuization and suspension of empathy through anonymity. (Bureaucrats do this, don't they?

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    ) Maybe the subconscious sees the new language as something outside normal personality, and responds accordingly.
  18. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    I was taking for granted that the wariness described was in part hardwired in some manner - as an emerging trait during normal child development, like sexual attraction and political awareness, would be my first guess. But it would naturally ride on perception of the circumstances, awareness of potential included - and language mediates that to some extent, especially in a situation presented via language, told as a story. One's awareness of potential is shorted by simplistic description or suggestion. Something similar can be seen in the lack of empathetic flinching at the fates of cartoon characters.

    Under more evolutionarily compatible circumstances than most modern humans face - in circumstances more likely to resemble our original evolutionary environment and pressures, and match our intrinsic adaptations - humans are self supporting from about age eight. (Tide pool and river mouth, lake or ocean frontage, tropical forest or grove edge habitat with an equatorial climate regime). This is about the age of language consolidation, as well, and the age by which the foundation of the ability to throw objects or play a musical instrument should have been laid if one expects high levels of skill later.

    It's not much of a stretch to consider that the basic moral setup consolidates around then as well, and is linked to the language.
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Actually our morality develops very slowly--long after the age which we now consider the beginning of adulthood.

    Deferred gratification doesn't become consistent until the 20s, and in most people empathy for others ranges from unreliable to almost nonexistent until the 30s.

    Parenthood is one of our strongest emotions because of its obvious importance in survival of the species. Yet look at how many teenage fathers abandon their families. In fact this is not uncommon even into the 20s.
  20. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    So does a pitcher's throwing arm, or a musician's musicianship, or a speaker's command of language.

    But the basics are there by eight or so, or they are unlikely ever to come together. People lacking empathy are visible long before adulthood - more visible, often, as they are less capable of concealing their moral pathology.

    My guess is that the primary source of variance in the trolley decision of the OP is not age.

    Not in my crowd.

    Little kids on a playground or sitting down to dinner etc have very strongly held opinions and interests in right/wrong, fairness, justice, etc. That arena of human dealings may be their single dominant interest, before puberty kicks in.

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