The Language of Morality

When it comes to making moral decisions, is it better to have emotional distance or to have compassion?

An ethics professor once told me that ethics is not about choosing between right and wrong because you should always choose what’s right. Ethics is typically about choosing between two wrongs. Certainly, if two people are approaching a decision from differing moral foundations, they may disagree on the “right” decision, but what the professor meant was that they are still trying to decide the “right” decision in a difficult situation in which there are “wrongs” that must be weighed on both sides of the issue. When people disagree, they are often prioritizing the wrongs differently.

Let’s take a typical example from ethics class: if a train is running out of control, and one track has one person tied to it and another track with five people tied to it and you have control of the switch that will direct the train to either of these two tracks, which one do you pick?

More than merely a macabre puzzle game, these improbable scenarios are meant to illuminate how one makes ethical decisions. Often, in the train example, people will kill the one person to save the five people. The next bit is to change the scenario slightly to see if the same kind of utilitarian calculation applies. For example, the one person on the train track is your father, and the five people on the other track are strangers. You still have control of the switch, what do you choose to do? Or, another way to change the scenario is to change the demographics of the victims. What if the one person is a child, while the five people are escaped prisoners? Or, the one person is a woman and the five people are men?

Thankfully, we rarely find ourselves in such troubling situations. However, what influences our answer to these questions becomes much more important when we move out the realm of imaginary trains and into real situations. One example of this is in medicine. Bioethicists often debate how to determine who receives scarce medical resources.

Take the train example, and whether your answers changed when we changed the demographic of the people tied to the rail. This is quite similar to the questions ethicists ask when it comes to deciding who should receive an organ from an organ donor. There are more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are available organs, so we have a situation in which the ethicist must decide how to choose the person who lives in a fair and just way. This is a case of weighing out the “wrongs” because no matter what the ethicist chooses, someone will likely die.

People make decisions based on many factors, but an article in The Economist indicates one unforeseen factor. A study in which some participants were asked two variations of the train scenario in their native language while other participants were asked these scenarios in a different language showed a difference when asked in a different language. Participants were not fluent in the other language, and were tested to ensure they were able to understand the question. In one scenario, the train will hit five people who are lying on the track, and the only way to save them is to push a fat man onto the track in front of the train. You cannot jump in front of the train; the only way to save them is to shove the fat man in the path of the train. The other scenario is the switch and two tracks mentioned above.

The switch scenario emotionally distances the person from the violent act. When given the switch scenario, most people opt to kill the one person in order to save five. This was the case whether the question was asked in a person’s native language or in a different language. However, when the person must push the fat man onto the track, about 20% of people would push the fat man onto the track when asked in their native language (This was also the same for people fluent in a particular language), but when asked in a different language, the percentage was 33%.

After several tests and analyses to account for factors such as cultural mores and randomness, the study confirmed that when people are asked about the fat man scenario in a different language, they were more likely to push him onto the track compared to when they are asked in their native language or a language in which they have fluency. It seems that the different language provides emotional distance similar to the way the switch provided emotional distance.

We live in a globalized world in which many people communicate and make decisions in a different language. Based on this study, it seems that language barriers also create emotional distance that is not necessarily there if the person is making the decision in his or her native language. In the area of medicine, this may have implications for patients who are asked to make a decision while living in a different country that does not speak his or her language. Additionally, this may have implications for patients who are unfamiliar with technical medical jargon, in which the use of jargon may be similar to hearing a problem in a different language. This may prompt a patient to make a more emotionally distanced decision.

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