Does speaking a foreign language make us more utilitarian?

by on May 2, 2014 at 12:40 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

Albert Costa say yes:

Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem. And yet here we report evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas. We argue that this stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language, consequently reducing the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. In general, we suggest that the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language induces utilitarianism. This shows that moral judgments can be heavily affected by an orthogonal property to moral principles, and importantly, one that is relevant to hundreds of millions of individuals on a daily basis.

The Plos paper is here, hat tip from Vic Sarjoo.  And here is another Robin Hanson post on “near vs. far.”

1 Infopractical May 2, 2014 at 12:51 pm

I dislike reading the author so quickly jump to one of many possible conclusions about the shift toward utilitarian behavior. The brain problem solves in many ways that, even on a simple level, make it hard for somebody who studies mechanisms of ethics and morality in the brain to clearly identify what is going on. Maybe foreign languages make specific parts of the brain work harder. Tough moral decisions may depend on certain balances in parts of the brain that are in conflict.

But it seems like the researcher wants people to be persuaded that utilitarianism is “good”, and so picks one potential mechanism out of very many, almost as if to affirm a moral judgment. I don’t know whether to distrust the research, but this sort of leap that I see so often gives me pause and reduces my general trust in the field. And that’s a shame, because science is awesome and brains are pretty amazing machines.

2 prior_approval May 2, 2014 at 1:15 pm

It doesn’t need to be a foreign language, just a sufficiently debased version of one’s own –

‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.’

3 dan1111 May 2, 2014 at 1:40 pm

I am ready to believe that sloppy thinking causes sloppy language, but I am skeptical of the causality in the opposite direction that Orwell claims. Also, excessive concern for correctness of grammar and usage might be associated with its own deficiencies of reasoning.

4 Andrew M May 2, 2014 at 1:47 pm

What does this imply about politics and governance? Does a multilingual country such as Switzerland or Belgium experience different political outcomes to monolingual countries, and is this because voters choose the more utilitarian option?

Maybe it’s just a matter of in-group vs out-group. A question like “should you sacrifice one Korean to sacrifice five Koreans” would elicit a different response than if the question was about Americans. Although the question didn’t state the nationality of the six hypothetical individuals, the test subjects may have assumed it from the language of the question.

5 Alexei Sadeski May 2, 2014 at 2:09 pm

If this is true then the universal adoption of english can’t come soon enough.

6 Das May 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

I would prefer the universal adoption of Sindarin. But then I am not biased in favor of English.

7 Steven Kopits May 2, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I think the central insight is correct. A simpler version of the test is how you feel about swearing in a foreign language. Personally, it carries less emotional weight for me, because the words are just words. They’re not infused with the same meaning.

8 Baphomet May 2, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Again, we need to remember that PLoS One essentially publish everything they get. Referees are instructed to only check that there is no plagiarism.

9 Rahul May 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm


10 Curt F. May 3, 2014 at 6:36 am

That isn’t true. PLOS One reviewers also check that conclusions follow from the data as presented, and I think also that statistics were appropriately used. What they don’t do is evaluate scientific novelty or impact.

11 Michael D. Abramoff May 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I am an immigrant, and to me “Harvard” or “Midwest” have little of the emotional connotations that they have to my fellow Americans born here. I am sure it would have been harder for me, if this was my native language and culture, to see the advantages of not sending my children to overpriced Ivy League colleges, or of living here in the Midwest. To rephrase this, my actions make more sense from a utilitarian persepctive than from a culturel perspective.

So yes, a second language and culture can be an advantage from that perspective, but it lowers cohesiveness, which is a disadvantage.

12 Rahul May 3, 2014 at 1:15 am

I wonder if studies like this one should also test for robustness by doing stuff like: ask question in male voice & female voice. While sitting on a sofa versus standing. While sipping tea versus coffee. etc.

Point is, I’m sure there’s variation in response but not every such variation is in need of a reason. Some is just statistical artifacts magnified by significance jugglery. Other features are ephemeral, those lacking robust external validity.

13 Dismalist May 2, 2014 at 6:32 pm

What’s wrong with utilitarianism? 🙂

14 Paul Gowder May 3, 2014 at 12:09 am

Maybe it leads to de-emotionalization. Or maybe those who speak foreign languages are more likely to empathize with people unlike them and care about their interests, and hence want to prefer moral theories that count everyone’s interests equally. Bit of a one-sided presentation…

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