Comments 18

The Morality of Language

Does speaking in a second language make you a more moral person?

Tragedy can strike but it doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of it. When Frank’s dog was struck and killed by a car in front of his house, he grew curious what Fido might taste like. So he cooked him up and ate him for dinner. It was a harmless decision, but, nonetheless, one could understandably consider it immoral. Or take incest: a brother, who’s using a condom, and his sister, who’s on birth control, decide to have sex. They enjoy it but keep it a secret and don’t do it again. Is their action morally wrong? If they’re both consenting adults and not hurting anyone, can one level a legitimate moral judgment?

Along with a student cheating on an exam and a woman secretly cutting up a national flag to use for cleaning her toilet, Janet Geipel of the University of Trento in Italy posed these fictional scenarios to Germanophone, Italophone, and Anglophone college students in both their native language and in a second language that they spoke almost fluently. What Geipel found in her brand new July 2015 study is that “the use of a foreign language, as opposed to a native language, elicited less harsh moral judgments.” She also concluded that a distance is created between emotional and moral topics when speaking in a second language.

People are more likely to act less emotionally and more rationally when speaking their second language, according to Geipel. Nelson Mandela seemed to have understood this dynamic decades ago when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

The question of whether language influences morality is a desperately important one: if moral decisions are contingent on the language in which they are posed then the decisions of people who must work in a foreign language on a daily basis  —  immigrants, international corporations, international institutions  —  would need to be reevaluated. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs in Paris or the United Nations in Burma, decisions made by people speaking their non-native languages appear to be less concerned with morality and more concerned with rationality and utilitarianism.

Moral decisions tend to be made using two thought processes —  one subconscious, one conscious. The emotional content of a dilemma is first understood subconsciously. One reacts to a situation’s emotional content without realizing it. You hear about sibling incest and you get emotionally disgusted: you don’t reason through it; you just react. The second step is conscious evaluation. This takes rationality, effort, and cognitive control. You think about incest or dead dog-eating further and realize that no one is being hurt and that just because something is peculiar might not necessarily mean it is immoral.

Geipel believes that moral decision-making in a second language does not significantly change this conscious-subconscious dynamic. “The present findings are not consistent with the idea that foreign language promotes a switch from intuitive to controlled processes,” she writes, “but rather suggest that intuitive processes remain active.” What this means is that people may be more moral when speaking their first language and more rational when speaking their second language, but people are still taking the time to think through all of their decisions.

Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago and Albert Costa of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona came to a similar conclusion. In 2014, Keysar and Costa posed the “trolley dilemma” — where pushing one man onto train tracks can save five people from being killed (sacrificing one for five) — to more than a thousand people in five different languages. They found that people reading the scenario in their non-native language were significantly more likely to push the man than those reading in their native language. When reading in their native language, 20 percent of participants would push the man; when reading in their non-native language, 33 percent would push him.

Similar to Geipel, Keysar and Costa concluded that the cognitive load required to understand a scenario in a second language creates an emotional distance, and, when speaking in a second language, people tend to process moral dilemmas consciously and rationally rather than subconsciously and emotionally.

This conscious-subconscious dynamic of morality can be seen elsewhere. In 1986, Michael Bond and Tat-ming Lai found that Chinese-English bilinguals were more open to discussing embarrassing topics, such as intimate sexual information, when chatting in their non-native language. And in 2010 Jean-Marc Dewaele found that multilinguals from the United Kingdom preferred swearing in their second language, claiming that it allowed them to escape from cultural and social restrictions.

“Allegory of the Morality of Earthly Things,” Tintoretto, 1585

“Allegory of the Morality of Earthly Things,” Tintoretto, 1585

114605-magic-marker-icon-alphanumeric-letter-yyYet Keysar and Costa found that moral decision-making could, alternatively, be a function of not just language but the cultural norms that are associated with those languages as well.

For instance, Keysar and Costa asked Spanish, Korean, French, Hebrew, and English speakers to weigh in on the trolley decision in both their native language and a non-native language they spoke almost fluently. When native Korean speakers were asked in Korean about the dilemma not a single person chose to push the man in front of the track. When asked in in English, however, 7.5 percent of native Korean speakers made the utilitarian decision to push him, implying that speaking Korean makes one less aggressive and less willing to actively sacrifice a life. Alternatively, when native Anglophones spoke Spanish, they became more aggressive and were significantly more likely to push the man to save the five than when they spoke their native English, implying that speaking Spanish could make one more aggressive and utilitarian.

When people work in their native language, they read or hear a moral scenario like the trolley dilemma or the dog-eating story and immediately react. But working in a non-native language appears to create a barrier through which emotions must pass.

In many ways, this can be a positive change: when judgments of immorality are based on things that make us subconsciously feel “weird” or “unsettled” then skewed policy tends to follow.

Should gay or transgender people not be allowed to marry because it initially seems “bizarre” to a few people? Should contraception be denied to women because it is “different” or because pre-marital sex makes certain people “uncomfortable”? If no one is being harmed by an action, rarely can it then be considered immoral. If one were to rationally and consciously think through these moral dilemmas, might one’s decision be different than if one were to merely react immediately and emotionally?

It seems likely. And yet, as the psychologist Nalini Ambady famously showed, it’s extremely difficult to get past our initial reactions. Our first perception tends to color all future perceptions and first perceptions happen so quickly that we rarely have time to override them.

That’s the importance of a non-native language: if morally ambiguous scenarios are approached with a second language then that initial subconscious bias might not come into play. All decisions could be made consciously and rationally. Speaking a second language, therefore, may be one of the most moral things you can do.

A version of this story first appeared at Nautilus. Read it here.


  1. Very interesting and well-written. However, I question the conclusion of the study involving native Korean speakers vs native Anglophone speakers being tested in two different languages. It seems the speakers’ native cultures could be more of a factor in their responses rather than the culture of the non-native language they used when answering the question. But, this doesn’t detract much from the main point of the article because there is still a discrepancy in the responses across the board, which is fascinating.

  2. Beautiful!
    It’s amazing how people change the second they switch languages. I notice this myself. Somehow I feel more independent in English (as it’s my second language) if that makes sense, somehow.
    It’s fascinating to read about languages and their effect on our lives and way of looking at life.
    Great post! Thank you so much for this nice and very entertaining read!

  3. It’s no mistake that Hans Castorp and Madame Chauchat play out their love affair in French in The Magic Mountain, while the rest of the novel is in German or translated for U.S. reading into English. More recent editions unfortunately translate their love affair into English as well, which makes the point being made missed entirely.

  4. Lane says

    This is really interesting data. I like the information, but I also worry about some of the assumptions of the post.

    I’ve followed the moral research that revolves around these types of questions for a long time, and I find it fascinating, but I am consistently bothered by the common assumption that the “correct” choices are A. it’s fine to eat the dog B. the incest is fine and C. the correct decision is to push the fat man in front of the trolley (in the original story that detail is important, as it explains why the person being asked can’t hypothetically jump themselves. The other person is fat enough to stop the trolley, and you apparently aren’t). The emotional reactions are automatically assumed to be incorrect because they are not rational. The reality is that our brains evolved to use both logic and emotional shortcuts for a reason. There are certain types of problems that are better solved using logic and rationality, but others that are better solved with emotional intelligence, and much of wisdom is learning when to use each. In these specific cases, the emotional reaction directs us to a truth that is relatively difficult to arrive at logically.

    First, the dog. While there might be nothing inherently immoral in any of the actions it took, it implies a disturbing lack of connection between Frank and a lifelong companion. If you could lose a pet and be so blase about the matter as to eat him that evening, that implies something callous and detached. It implies that Frank might not be someone you would want to get close to; somebody who is emotionally insensitive or even psychopathic. He might be harmless, but its what we in the wonderful world of emotional abuse survival call a serious red flag.

    Second, the incest. We have an evolved aversion to incest because it really does cause genetic problems in long term (and a relatively shortish long term at that). It’s good that it’s there. It protects us. Interestingly, the desire for incest is relatively rare because of something called the Westermarck effect. Basically, people raised together in early childhood become sexually desensitized to each other. Because of this, unlike homosexuality, people suffering from long harbored exclusive sexual desire for their siblings isn’t really a thing. In the rare cases of somebody falling in love with a sibling, there is some estrangement at work. Perhaps they were adopted away from each other and met later in life. When I hear about those cases, I do tend to think, “well, why not? This is rare enough that it won’t cause any widespread genetic problems.” I just don’t like it when people take it to the extreme of “oh, incest is totally fine and there’s no logical reason for societies worldwide to disapprove of it generally.”

    Third is the big one, the fat man on the trolley question. The interesting thing about the original question is that when people are asked if they would choose to divert a trolley from a track with five people tied on it to one with two or three people, they would make that choice, because they perceive the person who did the tying as the one who put all eight people in harm’s way. Everybody is already involved, and the decision maker is simply trying to reduce casualties within the existing situation. When it comes to pushing the fat man, he is perceived as being someone uninvolved. You’re dragging a non-consenting person into the issue and demanding that he take all of the pain and consequences, forever. In that scenario, you are the murderer.

    It might be argued that in a utilitarian sense, fewer people are dying, but if in this situation, it’s fine to drag an uninvolved person into a situation against their will and end their life, why not in other situations? Doesn’t it follow that in any other case where two or more people are in trouble, you can go find some stranger and make them the scapegoat for everything, no matter what the consequences are? You’ve already said it’s okay to end their life. Surely then it’s also okay to frame them for an infidelity, con them into massive debt, steal from them to provide for yourself, even injure them. And if it’s okay for you to do that to anyone else, it’s okay for anyone else to do it to you.

    Does anybody actually want to live in that world?

    Sorry for rambling on so long. This is one of my favorite topics.

    • I agree that the response of “let them eat dog” seems to be a bit…morally immature. Opening up anything for allowance, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, opens up slippery slopes that run afoul to some of the notions that Western democracy appears to be built upon, which is a bit sturdier than utilitarianism. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple, perhaps it’s not how we judge others, but what we do in our solitude that makes us moral. Regardless, it is a fascinating article, and anything that gives us pause is certainly worth considering.

  5. I don’t think my ability to speak a second language would help or hinder a decision to push someone in front of a trolley. Having to make a choice to end someones life, I think, would take a huge toll on my psyche, which would override the affect of the speaking of a second language, no matter the reasoning.

  6. Pingback: Hello world! | landpass

  7. Pingback: The Morality of Language | Vertigo

  8. Among some American tribes kinship was defined not by blood lineage but by custom. The female daughters of one’s mother and her sisters was not kin and were in fact desirable mates for marriage. But with the Western European concern for inheritance, the degree of kinship followed blood to an extreme degree – as first cousin four times removed.
    We speak in discrete packets of metaphors. The comprehension of the listener is dependent on intuitively understanding these metaphors. When we speak in a learned nonnative language it is mostly devoid of the emotional metaphors and thus becomes equivalent to the old “trade languages.”

  9. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail

  10. It’s an interesting thing for me since my native language is Russian. I don’t think this fact makes me “feel” posts and blogs less or worse.
    Does the heart have its language? I think its language is feelings and we all can understand this universal language.

  11. Interesting article and definitely food for thought. I have to say though that making a good decision involves both rationality and morality. There is a difference though between something you believe is moral and something you’ve always believed just because that’s how you were raised without knowing why.

  12. I kind of disagree, I believe that human beings are so intellectual that after a while, your system adapts you emotional an rational responses to situations regardless of language difference. It could be that people do not express themselves as effectively in a second language so they limit themselves to the trusted linguistic structures that they already acquired which hinders their going into choosing complicated options which would require more effecient linguistic skills. In this case I think it is linguistic empediment and not a conflict of morality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s