Is It Cheating or Discrimination?

Dutee Chand (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

Sprinter Dutee Chand has been banned from competing in track-and-field because her body produces abnormally high levels of testosterone as reported in The New York Times. Chand is India’s 100-meter, under 18 champion and was an Olympic hopeful, but after an official or a competitor at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in June requested that Chand be tested for hyperandrogenism, she was pulled from the sport. Chand had won two gold medals at the event.

It was found that Chand has a condition which causes her body to produce more testosterone than what is considered the normal range for women. Chand’s case is not unique. Recent studies have shown that hyperandrogenism may be overrepresented among female athletes compared to the general population. Four female athletes were pulled from the 2012 London Olympics and taken to France for testing. All of them, like Chand, came from rural regions of developing countries. The London athletes were told to undergo surgery if they wanted to compete. The International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.) deemed that Chand cannot compete unless she takes hormone suppressing drugs or has surgery. Chand is contesting this stating that she should not have to change her body.

From a bioethics standpoint, there are several issues that are cause for concern regarding Chand’s case: 1) It is one thing to ban performance enhancers. It is another to require performance “diminishers” to change someone’s natural abilities. 2) Elite athletes are, by definition, not within the range of normal. Why are some genetic abnormalities allowed, but others are not? 3) What is the purpose of sport if it is not to celebrate God-given abilities coupled with training and hard work?

Chand has always considered herself a female and for all intents and purposes is female, but her body produces more testosterone than most females do. Her diagnosis of hyperandrogenism does not necessarily mean that she had an additional Y chromosome, as in Klinefelter syndrome, or a segment of a Y chromosome attached to one of her X chromosomes, as in De la Chappelle syndrome. It just means that her body produces significantly more testosterone. Furthermore, while synthetic testosterone, often taken for doping, confers an unnatural athletic advantage, the science on how naturally produced testosterone caused by hyperandrogenism and some of these other syndromes is still unknown. David Epstein, in his book The Sports Gene, cites Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patino as an example of this. She had De la Chappelle syndrome so her body was producing male levels of testosterone. However, she developed fully female because her body also had androgen insensitivity, which means her body does not respond to testosterone. Hormones, like testosterone, are chemical signals, and in people with androgen insensitivity, their body does not seem to read the signal. Her success as a hurdler, Epstein argues, is likely due to something else.

Epstein spoke with two endocrinologists who believe that androgen insensitivity is likely overrepresented in both sports and modeling. Even though their bodies do not respond to testosterone, they do seem to exhibit certain physical features. In women with high testosterone but androgen insensitivity, their arms and legs tend to be longer than the average female, and they tend to be a couple of inches taller than average female height. Because they do not respond to testosterone, they are feminine, but this added height and limb length can be an athletic advantage in certain sports.

Epstein interviewed Jeff Brown, an endocrinologist who works with top athletes in the U.S., several of whom are Olympic gold medalists. Dr. Brown reports that several of his female athletes have partial 21-hydroxylase deficiency, which is genetically passed down from the parents, and can cause an overproduction of testosterone. Women with low-level 21-hydroxylase deficiency develop normal ovaries and uterus, but their bodies produce more testosterone. How that testosterone is read by the body is still unclear. As a note, men can have 21-hydroxylase deficiency, but its effects are less dramatic.

Interestingly Dr. Brown points out that the endocrine system of elite athletes, in general, differs noticeably from those of most adults. He points out that there are many things about the bodies of elite athletes that are different from most people. This brings up the second issue with Chand’s case. By definition, elite athletes are rare. Once we start talking about the upper echelons of athletic performance, it is often the rare combination of genetics, work ethic, and opportunity that allows an athlete to become elite.

Consider the example of arm span in the NBA. It is a given that a six-foot male is considered “short” in the NBA. In general, most NBA players are taller than average. But being over six-feet tall is not as rare as having an arm span that is longer than height. This rare trait is overrepresented in the NBA. Normal adults have an arm span that is roughly equivalent to their height. In the NBA, most players have an arm span that is significantly longer than their height. For example, Kevin Durant is 6’9” but has a reported wingspan of 7’4”. LeBron James is 6’7.25” with a wingspan of 7’0.25”. Michael Jordan is 6’6” with a reported wingspan of 6’11.5” (Statistics are from NBA.com and wikiepedia.org). Longer arm span means that these athletes actually have a taller effective height.

Pertinent to the topic, NBA players are not asked to do something about their arm span in order to compete in the Olympics or play competitive, professional basketball. One possible exception is Baylor University’s Isaiah Austin. His basketball career was cut short when pre-draft testing found that he had Marfan syndrome, deeming him ineligible to play basketball competitively. One of the symptoms of Marfan syndrome is tallness and an elongation of arms and fingers due to weak connective tissues in the joints. It also gave Austin a longer wingspan than height, likely giving him an advantage on the court. However, the difference between Austin’s case and Chand’s is that the effects of Marfan syndrome are well-known. Marfan syndrome can endanger an athlete because it affects the heart, eyes, circulatory system, and the skeletal structure. Austin was told that he had an enlarged heart and extreme physical exertion could kill him. Chand’s condition does not pose a known health risk.

The NBA is only one example. Genetic aberrations are seen in many other sports, yet these people are not asked to undergo chemical or surgical alterations to conform to certain notions of “normal.” Indeed, in the case of using performance enhancing drugs, which are illegal, the point is to synthetically procure what one was not given naturally. The point is to become “like” someone who is rare so that you can win.

Finally, Chand’s case brings up a larger philosophical question of the purpose of sport. Pierre Coubertin, who was instrumental in re-inventing the modern Olympic movement, considered athletic training part of the cultivation of virtues. He takes a post-Enlightenment, humanist perspective that stems from the pre-modern Judeo-Christian idea that all people are of equal moral worth, although not all are of equal capability. For Coubertin, the point was not winning-at-all-costs, but becoming a better person through discipline, integrity, self-control, hard work, and perseverance. However, given equal training and opportunity, if one athlete has bad knees and the other does not, then the one with better knees will prevail. Coubertin’s perspective would have little to say about an athlete like Chand. Presumably, the emphasis would be on whether she was cultivating a virtuous character.

For some, sport is about showing off technological prowess, which is often tied to a sense of nationalism when played on a global stage. Oftentimes, this view does not see using performance enhancers as a problem because it is considered part of training with the best technology possible. The competition is not just between individual athletes, but between countries. The question isn’t which athlete won the gold, but how many gold medals did a particular country receive. The accumulated successes reflect back on the country’s resources, politics, training, and technological capabilities. From this perspective, it is in the competing countries’ interest to make sure that the competitors are homogenous. This would mean that an athlete like Chand would be excluded because she does not fall within the “norm” and therefore provides one country with an unfair advantage over another.

Finally, another perspective is that sport is about admiring individual differences and God-given abilities. From this perspective, demanding that an athlete chemically or surgically “normalize” herself would constitute cheating because she would be altering herself from how she was born in a way that is meant to change her athletic performance. Incidentally, using performance enhancing drugs would also be unethical for the same reasons, but rather than attempting to normalize the athlete, those that use PEDs are intentionally trying to make themselves above the norm. This perspective would include Chand in world-class competition. Whether she should compete with men or women is another debate, perhaps one that calls into question some notions of gender segregation in sports.

Sports is an age-old social sphere that, in many ways, reflects something about our cultural values. Chand’s body is not within the “norm,” but most elite-level, world-class athletes are not, in one way or another, within the norm either. It is unfortunate that rather than celebrating her distinctive qualities and abilities as a sprinter, she is treated as less-than-adequate for physical qualities that are not under her control. Furthermore, one has to wonder why Chand’s particular physical qualities are considered something to be “fixed” rather than a gift to be celebrated.

Are We Bored Yet? The Apple Watch and New Technologies

One of the plights of modernity and postmodernity is hyperboredom. This is not the kind of boredom that comes out of having nothing to do, but the kind of boredom that comes out of having too many options and no way to distinguish which one is better than the other. We are jolted out of this boredom when we encounter disruptive technologies. These are technologies that fundamentally change a particular market and have an impact on our culture.

According to Ian Bogost, Apple is a company that is as much in the business of shaking us out of our routine with disruptive technologies as it is in the business of manufacturing them. This may explain why people flock to Apple’s announcements (either virtually, or in person) with a big-tent revival fervor in hopes of seeing what groundbreaking new technology Apple has in store for us. For a brief moment, the hyperbordom is replaced with anticipation and excitement over the possibility that the multitude of options will become passé to be replaced by that one technology that supersedes all of them.

Take, for example, Steve Jobs’ announcement in January, 2007 of this little gadget called the iPhone. He knew the implications of this device and where it stood in the grand scheme of things: (Quoted from “How Apple Introduced the iPhone” in The Atlantic):

This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years. Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes around that changes everything and Apple has been—well, first of all, one is very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career—Apple has been very fortunate. It’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world. In 1984, we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple. It changed the whole computer industry. In 2001, we introduced the first iPod. It didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry. Well, today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.(emphasis added)

Since then, every time Apple unveils a new iPhone, people flock to stores in anxious anticipation, some of them going so far as to sleep outside the Apple store’s doors in hopes of being the first to get the latest and best that Apple has to offer. And, it does not seem to be slowing down. Sales for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus broke last year’s record, selling ten million phones last weekend, an opening weekend that was strategically timed to ensure that there will be visions of iPhones dancing in everyone’s head by December.

So with such excitement and Apple’s track record of disruptive technology, what happened with the Apple Watch?* Apple had not released a new device in four years. This was to be the next device after the death of Steve Jobs that shows Apple is still changing markets. However, rather than the fanfare of groundbreaking technology, the Apple Watch was met with mixed reactions..

In his article “Future Ennui” Ian Bogost says that the problem is not the technology itself, but the burden that comes with it. We have become bored of the constant barrage of groundbreaking technologies. He compares it to Google’s innovations,

Unlike its competitor Google, with its eyeglass wearables and delivery drones and autonomous cars, Apple’s products are reasonable and expected—prosaic even, despite their refined design. Google’s future is truly science fictional, whereas Apple’s is mostly foreseeable. You can imagine wearing Apple Watch, in no small part because you remember thinking that you could imagine carrying Apple’s iPhone—and then you did, and now you always do.

Bogost may be giving Google too much of a pass, though. The Google Glass has sparked some controversy among those paranoid of being filmed by its wearers.

Perhaps the difference between Google’s innovations and Apple’s innovations can be compared to the difference between reading Isaac Asimov and Margaret Atwood. Asimov writes about robots and artificial intelligence, and even explores some of the ways that this technology can go awry, but Asimov’s stories do not come with a sense of prophetic inevitability that Atwood’s do. Atwood writes speculative fiction, not science fiction (See Atwood’s book In Other Worlds). Atwood’s stories, like her recent Madd Adam trilogy, are disconcerting because they are a little too plausible. Rather than something that may be fifty years from now, her books describe a near-future in which technologies that are already in place are ratcheted up. Similarly, while people will likely not drive automatic cars in the next ten years, it is much more likely that they will be wearing technology that is collecting data on all of their bodily process, purchases, and locations in the next two years.

While the fervor over the iPhone 6 hit record levels, perhaps the mixed response to the Apple Watch signifies that we are tempering our enthusiasm over internet-in-our-pocket technologies. Clive Thompson, quoted in an in an opinion piece in the New York Times, says that our attitudes toward technology follows a predictable pattern, “We are so intoxicated by it, and then there’s a fairly predictable curve of us recognizing as a society that this is untenable, and we’re acting like freaks.”

Thompson is an optimistic writer on technology who believes that there are many benefits to the kind of community interactions that are possible with the internet. Rather than focusing on the doom-and-gloom of the here-and-now, Thompson takes a broader, historical perspective, reminding us, in an interview with The New Yorker that we have been through this before,

We have a long track record of adapting to the challenges of new technologies and new media, and of figuring out self-control…More recently, we tamed our addition [sic] to talking incessantly on mobile phones. People forget this, but when mobile phones came along, in the nineties, people were so captivated by the idea that you could talk to someone else—anywhere—on the sidewalk, on a mountaintop—that they answered them every single time they rang. It took ten years, and a ton of quite useful scrutiny—and mockery of our own poor behavior—to pull back.

Indeed, studies on cell phone addiction and parents neglecting their children and state laws addressing car accident deaths because people cannot pull away from their cell phones are all indications that we are becoming keenly aware that we might be acting like “freaks.”

While disruptive technologies may also disrupt our postmodern malaise, there does come a point when we become weary of the constant announcements of the next-big-tech. Bogost’s article is compelling because he touches on this very notion. Once there are too many next-big-tech options available, the hyperboredom of modernity and postmodernity sets in.

*The marketing team at Apple wisely opted not to go with “iWatch.”

Cell Phone Addiction, Texting Anxiety, and Email Bankruptcy

A new study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions by Roberts, et al looks at the incidence of cell phone addiction among college-age males and females. The study also looked at what types of programs or behaviors had a positive correlation to addiction. As it turns out, some people do seem to be addicted to their cell phone, but perhaps the more accurate statement is that people are addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Incidentally, I am writing this as I am sitting at a Starbucks, the enabler, par excellence, of socially acceptable addictions. Both men and women are sitting on their cell phones doing something with their thumbs. If any of these people were to leave home without their cell phones, would they suffer from withdrawal? That’s one of several questions from the study. Another is whether you find yourself using your cell phone more and more.

Withdrawal is one of several indicators of addiction. Roberts, et al use the standard definition of addiction to identify whether college co-eds are addicts. They look for the presence of salience, euphoria, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse, as well as the incidence of continued use despite negative consequences. They found that many people have a cell phone addiction that is comparable to a behavior addiction, like compulsive shopping or compulsive gambling. (This is different from a substance addiction, which can involve not only neurological changes due to the formation of a habit, but also neurological effects that are a result of how the substance interacts with the body). In an effort to determine how and why a cell phone addiction forms, they focused on identifying the “tipping point” in which the cell phone goes from being a tool that people like to use, to becoming a need.

When exactly this tipping point occurs is difficult to identify. Incidence of phone addiction seems to correlate with the prevalence of Smart Phones, which means the underlying issue is what the phone is being used for. Furthermore, many of the students they surveyed consider their cell phone an integral part of their identity, meaning that the cell phone is viewed as something more than a tool or business or diversion. According to Kent Dunnington in his book Addiction and Virtue in which he looks at addiction from the perspective of Aristotle and Aquinas, addiction has an orienting nature to it that provides a semblance of identity and order (priorities) in a disordered, fragmented world. As the authors of the study point out, “Cell phones have become inextricably woven into our daily lives – an almost invisible driver of modern life.”

The study determined that men and women, who are addicted to their cell phones, use the cell phone slightly differently. Activities that positively correlate to cell phone addiction in men were number of emails sent, reading books, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, number of phone calls, and number of texts. Activities that positively correlate to cell phone addiction in women were Pinterest, Instagram, Amazon, Facebook, number of calls made, and number of texts and emails. Women spent significantly more time on their phones compared to men (10 hours per day versus 8 hours per day), but had the same number of calls, texts, and emails as men. Women spent more time on Facebook, but Facebook was a stronger predictor of addiction in men.

The authors contend that the addiction has to do with being socially connected. Gaming, for example, was not strongly correlated with cell phone addiction, while social media was. Furthermore, mental health issues as a result of cell phone use indicate that social connection is much more important to people than entertainment. Consider two issues that have arisen since Smart phones became popular: Text bubble anxiety and email inbox overload.

Ben Crair has a thought-provoking piece in the New Republic on the concept of “text bubble anxiety” or the sense of tension someone has when they know that another person is typing a message but the message has not been sent. The longer someone takes to type, indicated by ellipses on iPhones or “Bob is typing…” in Google Chat, the more anxious the other person becomes because the longer someone types, the more we tend to assume it is something bad. In reality, the other person may have been interrupted by another phone call or had to re-type the message for some other reason. When the person finally does send the text, and it happens to have trivial content, then we tend to be disappointed. This roller coaster ride of assumptions takes an emotional toll. Jessica Bennett, in an op-ed in the New York Times, confesses that her therapist recommended turning off the typing awareness indicator because it was causing her mental distress.

Another mental health issue is due to an overwhelming email inbox. Some people become so burdened by a burgeoning inbox that they must declare what Sherry Turkel, sociologist at MIT, calls “email bankruptcy.” Similar to financial bankruptcy, email bankruptcy is when your inbox becomes so full of unread or unaddressed emails, that it has become too unwieldy. This can cause some people additional stress and anxiety. One solution is to archive all emails, clear their inbox, and send a message to contacts saying that if they want to continue to do business with you to send a new email.

When it comes to addiction, the behavior is really a symptom of a deeper problem. This study indicates that cell phone addiction is really an addiction to mediated socializing. Dunnington says that addictive behavior, which is based on something more than mere sensory pleasure, can tell us what human beings most deeply desire. While addictions, like addictions to social networking, may begin as diversions to deal with boredom, they morph from diversions to addictions because they provide a sense of purpose or, in this case, a sense of community that is lacking in our modern individualistic culture.

Sherry Turkel says that it is important for people in our culture to demarcate sacred spaces where one will not engage in internet mediated socializing because people need to interact with one another in a more substantive way. She also says that people need to learn the practice of privacy and solitude, or put another way, people need to set personal boundaries and to cultivate an ability to be alone without being lonely.

While this study certainly has its limitations (e.g., the test subjects were college students), it is telling that the activities that have a positive correlation to cell phone addiction are not gaming or entertainment, but social networking.

Disabilities, Super-Abilities, and “Normal”

Tim Howard (Wikipedia)

A recent ABC News report asks whether Tourette’s syndrome can give athletes an advantage. Two examples given in the report are soccer player, Tim Howard, and swimmer, Anthony Ervin. Goal-keeper, Tim Howard, made history in the recent United States versus Belgium World Cup game in which he blocked a record-breaking sixteen goals.  This is the latest in several career successes for Howard, who believes his Tourette’s gives him an advantage on the field. Olympic gold-medalist, swimmer, Anthony Ervin believes that his tics, caused by Tourette’s syndrome, help him with speed by channeling his nervousness.

Studies indicate that athletes with Tourette’s do not have a noticeably faster response time or move faster than athletes without Tourette’s, but there may be other factors that contribute to an advantage on the field, or in the pool. It may be that Howard and Ervin’s mental and physical discipline needed to manage their Tourette’s works to their advantage.

Another recent study, reported in Scientific American, looked at how people with dyslexia can identify visual cues better than those without dyslexia. Apparently, people with dyslexia can look at pictures of impossible figures, like the three-dimensional impossible figures in an Escher print, and pick out the problem more quickly than other people.  This ability can translate to the real world. Often people with dyslexia can look at room and find what looks out-of-place.

Waterfall, 1961 (Wikipedia)

Scientists are not entirely sure why this happens, but they speculate that it may have to do with the brain changes that occur in people who read a lot versus people who do not read as often or read slowly. People who read less tend to have a more holistic perspective of a particular setting rather than focusing on one thing and tuning out the rest of their surroundings. This coincides with studies on entrepreneurs with dyslexia. In the United States, about 35% of entrepreneurs have dyslexia. Many of these entrepreneurs say that dealing with their dyslexia has helped them to become very good at sifting information and grasping the “big picture” better than other people.

Both of these studies demonstrate perceived advantages from something that is labeled as a disability or abnormality. It may be that while abilities in one area are diminished, abilities in another area are enhanced. David Epstein in his book, The Sports Gene, says that most of the people we celebrate as great athletes and examples of human achievement, have attributes that fall outside of the norm. One of his many examples is that of elite-level basketball players. Most people have an arm span that is the same as their height, but most professional basketball players have a longer arm span than height, which would serve as an advantage on the court. Longer arm span is not necessarily considered a disability, although in some cases, it can be and indicator of Marfan syndrome. This is just one of many examples in Epstein’s book where an “abnormality” leads to an athletic advantage.

One article on the OCD Foundation’s website on Tourette’s syndrome points out that metaphors are everything, and a child who is told his Tourette’s is like driving a Ferrari while everyone else is driving a Toyota will grow up thinking quite differently about himself and his abilities than a child who believes he is limited due to a disability. Additionally, several of the entrepreneurs with dyslexia said that they had supportive parents and mentors who helped them see their abilities rather than their disabilities. Perhaps in our eagerness to “cure” abnormalities and diseases with advances in medical technologies and enhancement therapies, we lose sight of the gifts and creativity that these people bring.

What’s So Appealing about Comic Book Movies?

X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, as of this writing, surpassed its franchise predecessors and grossed over $500 million, which is not far behind 2012’s blockbuster, Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.  Avengers grossed over $600 million. As long as comic book movies keep winning in the box office, Hollywood is happy to indulge. Indeed, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is set to come out in theaters in May 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse will come out sometime in 2016. What is it about comic book movies that have such mass appeal?

1)      The Obvious: Over-the-top fight-scenes using high-tech graphics all done by super-fit people in tight-fitting outfits (or in the case of Mystique, no outfit)

More than mere eye-candy, there is something to the visual component of all of the recent comic book movies. Comics have always been about visual as well as verbal communication, but now the visual is accomplished with striking effects. Consider the high-budget fight scene guaranteed to appear in every comic book movie. The viewer not only sees or reads about the fight, but is able to experience it through the use of camera angles, lighting, and choreography. <Minor Spoiler Alert> For example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the scenes in which the future mutants are fighting the sentinels intentionally uses lighting and backdrop to convey despair, while the fight scene between the past mutants and the sentinels, is well-lit and hopeful.

2)      The Just: The good guys beat up on the bad guys

Human beings have an innate desire to see justice done. The protagonist(s) winning over the antagonist(s) satisfies some deep yearning for cosmic justice. One major theme in comic books is good versus evil. Stan Lee originally wrote Tony Stark (Ironman) to be an unlikable protagonist in the comic books. But, the appeal of the Ironman movies, particularly the first movie, is his redemption and subsequent fight against evil to make things right.

3)      The Alien: Mutants are weird, but not too weird

One literary device that writers often employ is the “alien” or the “savage”. This character is an outsider to the world as we know it that causes us to look beyond ourselves. It introduces the other. One classic example is the noble savage in Huxley’s Brave New World. He serves to question the infrastructure of the world that all of the other characters find completely normal, and in questioning the fictional world, he is questioning those similar elements in our world. Marvel’s mutants are not aliens, but serve the same purpose of representing the other. A theme in several of the X-Men movies is  prejudice and dehumanization.

4)      The Myth: Superheroes as modern-day gods

It is no secret that there are many parallels between comic book heroes and pagan gods, the writers even going so far as to borrow gods, such as Thor and Loki. Comic book heroes are inhumanly powerful, but with human flaws, making them both relatable and god-like. And, like pagan gods, they can be intimate with humans (Wolverine, The Wolverine), they can hate humans (Magneto), and they can have compassion on humanity (Professor X).

Comic book movies appeal to a mass audience because they touch on timeless elements, including, but not limited to its visual appeal. It’s the old story retold in modern trappings.

Related:

See “X-Men Ethics Class” from Salvo 18

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.