Morality and language

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In a slightly humorous take on complex morality problems researchers have discovered that people tend to make more utilitarian decisions, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, if the conundrums are presented in another language.


The experiment was conducted by interviews using the trolley dilemma.
In the first variant of this dilemma a small train is traveling down a railroad track about to hit and kill five people. You are standing on a footbridge above somehow in the company of a heavy man. Now you have a choice to save the five people on the tracks by pushing the heavy man over thereby killing him while saving the other five people.


Participants in the study were native speakers of Korean, English/Spanish and English who were then informed of the trolley dilemma in either English, Spanish, Hebrew or French.

In the first variant of the experiment the participants where a lot more likely to save the five when the problem was presented in a foreign language(33%) instead of their native one(20%). Although there was some cultural differences in between subgroups of the participants the researchers designed experiments to test and exclude that as a factor.


The hypothesis for the result in the first variant is that you have less of an emotional attachment using a foreign language than you have in your native language and therefore feel less guilty about pushing the man off the ledge and saving the other people, the decision becomes more utilitarian as a result of the language.


In the second version of the dilemma the stakes are the same but you don’t have to get your hands as bloody since this time around you only have to flip a switch to have the train careen down a second set of tracks killing the heavy man therefore saving the other five.

This second variant of the experiment was designed to be a less emotional decision since you are not actively committing premeditated murder. Because there is less emotion involved the language should have less of an impact.


The results from the second variant also reflected this since there was almost no difference in what language you were informed of the dilemma in. Around 80% of the subjects chose the utilitarian option regardless of which language the information is given in.


So if you find yourself in a group of five with some sort of vehicle closing on you fast, hope that the one guy at a distance that can save you have had the situation explained to him in a foreign language, maybe by the heavy set guy standing beside him.