The article in the url below discusses the extent to which our personal values/morals/ethics are central to who we are as individuals:
"What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong."
What is interesting, therefore, is to consider how that morality evolves according to context, such as when speaking a foreign language:
"And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I'm a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I'm using at the time?"
While we have known that morality is, to some extent, culturally specific (i.e., different behaviors are deemed to be moral/immoral in different cultures) and time-specific (i.e., different behaviors are deemed to be moral/immoral at different points in time), the article discusses how this variance exists within people as well as among them. In other words, different behaviors by the same person are considered moral/immoral depending on the culture in which the person happens to be at the time. The research summarized in the article operationalizes different cultures in terms of when the person is speaking a different language and found some interesting results:
"[Researchers] found that using a foreign language shifted their participants' moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue."
The explanation offered for this relative morality speaks directly to the level of effort required to speak a foreign language as opposed to a native language:
"According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level 'feeling,' and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity."
Another explanation offered relies more on the relationship between language, emotions, and memory:
"An alternative explanation is that differences arise between native and foreign tongues because our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made in a foreign language are less laden with the emotional reactions that surface when we use a language learned in childhood."
The author's conclusion?
"What then, is a multilingual person's 'true' moral self? Is it my moral memories, the reverberations of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be 'good'? Or is it the reasoning I'm able to apply when free of such unconscious constraints? Or perhaps, this line of research simply illuminates what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that our moral compass is a combination of the earliest forces that have shaped us and the ways in which we escape them."
This work reminds me of research that looked at the relativity of ethical values by studying the decisions of prison parole boards before and after lunch. It seems that, if you ever find yourself before a prison parole board, they will be less likely to be lenient if they are hungry (see Strategic CSR – Ethics).
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How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language
By Julie Sedivy
September 14, 2016