Moving The Window of Acceptability
September 15, 2016 4:02 PM   Subscribe

How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language. Studies show that the way we think about moral questions is subtly influenced by the language we're using at the time. People using a non-native language tend to be more cerebral and less emotional. What does this say about the concept of the moral center, or "just knowing" what's right and what's wrong?
posted by Kevin Street (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
"All we have to do is avoid burdening our minds with metaphysical requirements. And then, as Liebnitz suggested, we can sit around a table and say, "Calculemus.""

-Umberto Eco.
posted by clavdivs at 4:39 PM on September 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

Morals are relative, that doesn't mean they're not real!
posted by The Ted at 4:44 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

What if your language is rather limited? Aka a two-year-old's solution to the trolley problem: Uh-oh.

(I'm also quite fond of the Monty Hall trolley problem: "You have three switches, two of them have no effect, ...".)
posted by effbot at 4:53 PM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

What does this say about the concept of the moral center, or "just knowing" what's right and what's wrong?

Od-Gay Is-way Ead-Day!
posted by leotrotsky at 6:10 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

What does this say about the concept of the moral center, or "just knowing" what's right and what's wrong?

That it doesn't exist. The more interesting question seems to be which we should privilege: the emotional, feelings-based, instinctual sense? Or the rational, dry, conscious version? There often seems to be an implicit understanding in articles that mention the Trolley Problem that the latter is obviously the superior; I'm not so sure.

After all, no one's death means dick but for the fact that we loved them, that they felt and knew as we did, that their lack pains us, that their pain echoes in our tender mirror neurons when we imagine it. So perhaps the solution to a moral dilemma which elicits the strongest instinctual sense of rightness, of emotional acceptance, is indeed the right one. And John Stewart Mill can be set a-spinnin' in his tomb.
posted by Diablevert at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

On the other hand, a lot of really awful things can be traced back to people relying on 'just knowing' right vs. wrong.

It's one thing to have a self-contained emotional response to something, and I solve the trolley problem by avoiding railyards. But people make decisions and judgments all the time, often based on nothing more than their 'gut instincts' or 'common sense,' which are pretty much just the collection of biases they can't justify or, sometimes, even articulate. And those decisions can and do affect others.

Innocent people are killed all the time by people who have a moral center and a gun.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:15 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

"On the other hand, a lot of really awful things can be traced back to people relying on 'just knowing' right vs. wrong."

Yes, Eco points out one of the enlightenments lasting attribute is the "willingness to subject all beliefs to criticism, even those that science serves up as absolute proof."
I see your point about gut feelings and random bias though this is also addressed with "Strong Reason" sans Hegel vs. Ecos' phrase "human reasonableness".

A moral center and a gun. I get that but I label it "paper bag revolver".
Who knows you have a gun if it's in a bag. So it's a matter of intent which is still a moral question but when a decision to take the gun out, it become a matter of ethics, the moral strength to put it down is merely a temporary resolution.

Though a similar thesis of image, language and sound can be made with two people speaking the same language, this is antithetical to the authors intent. I would venture the idea is this , if I know enough German and study the word "human rememberance", I'm almost obligated to know every aspect of the German words used to form a translation which in turn becomes a concept.
posted by clavdivs at 9:00 PM on September 15, 2016

Innocent people are killed all the time by people who have a moral center and a gun.

Sure, but that's not the Trolley Problem. That's not even a problem, really, as stated: I don't think any moral system, instinctual or rational, holds "it is right to kill innocent people." To kill someone you believe to be guilty and be wrong is a fuck up, not a dilemma. To kill someone that you believe is guilty but I believe is innocent might be a problem, but it's not one of one person's internal conflict about which moral system should hold sway.

The thing the trolley problem highlights is that our rational, conscious moral system tends toward utilitarianism: kill one, save four, our net is +3 human lives, therefore that's the right choice. Whereas our instinctual answer: "No, I won't kill the fat guy, murder is wrong" suggests that to deliberately cause harm to another by our actions is fundamentally worse than to fail to prevent harm. One could see that as arbitrary. To me it suggests that, unconsciously, we think that in a world where humans have so little control over events, it is the choices we do make, our intention, our will, that matters; a privileging of desire. World's full of bad things we didn't choose; we ought to be blamed for the ones we did, our cruelties.
posted by Diablevert at 9:13 PM on September 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

I can believe that posing a question in a different language might somewhat affect the way you think about it, especially if the questions are hypothetical and in an experimental context. I can't really believe that real-world moral conclusions are radically affected by language. If people negotiatiing some agreement suddenly changed position as soon as they started talking to foreigners - and then back again when they got home and had to explain what they had mysteriously agreed - the effect would surely have been obvious by now?
posted by Segundus at 4:02 AM on September 16, 2016

I despise the trolley problem. It forces us to consider a situation that never occurs in real life and forces us to choose death: you have to kill these humans or those humans (or that human). Our instinctive revulsion at killing is real and important, and anything that tends to weaken it is wrong. (Ask me about the morality of military training!)
posted by languagehat at 8:06 AM on September 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Really interested in this topic as armchair linguist. Will read!
posted by cluebucket at 10:31 AM on September 16, 2016

The shooting thing is an extreme example, and you're right. That is a fuckup, not a dilemma. I'm talking about all kinds of subtle, often unconscious judgments that people make that they don't question, that they think are just common sense universals. And the action/inaction is a major element of the trolley problem, but it's also about bias, which is the part I assumed the article was addressing. It's about the things people take for granted, like the dog eating and consensual incest examples.

Just because this example is fresh in my head right now, the other day, I was reading about some missing child case, I ended up in a forum where people were talking about it, and it was just horrific the amount of 'common sense' getting flung around about how normal people supposedly behave and what it means when they don't act the way they'd expect them to. They were accusing the child's mother of murdering or selling him because they thought she wasn't behaving the way they believe they would behave in a situation that was entirely hypothetical to them.

The mother did it because of course no good mother would leave her IIRC 12 and 8 year old children home alone at night (despite this being in the 80s when people still hired 12 year olds to babysit pretty regularly, because default cultural common sense changed). Her emotional reactions were not the ones they would expect, she didn't say the right things or do the right things. She wasn't sobbing enough in front of the cameras, because everyone knows that that's what you do. They've seen that on TV shows, they've speculated in their own minds about how they might react, and that wasn't it.

I have absolutely no idea about that specific case, of course, but the confidence that many people seemed to have in their interpretations was just chilling. Because people serve on juries, they make hiring decisions, they all kinds of other, smaller decisions every day that build up and affect the way others are perceived and treated, and they're often completely oblivious to all those little biases and assumptions, and often actively defensive of them. Think of cops when they talk about their finely honed 'instincts' that lead them to believe that someone is suspicious or being deceptive.

But first of all, nobody actually knows for sure how they would react in any given situation unless and until they've actually been there. Woolgathering and speculating can be an interesting intellectual exercise, but it does not translate to the real world. Second, everyone is different, often more different than we realize. People have different interests, motivations, limitations, biases, cultures, priorities, and proclivities. Their common sense is very different from your common sense. It's mostly bullshit, and it all deserves to be questioned. And when we trust our moral centers or our common sense or gut feelings, what we're really doing is refusing to acknowledge or examine our personal biases.

The thing I don't like about the trolley problem is that it is so hypothetical. It's an interesting dilemma, and I understand why it has to be so horrific, but since it's hypothetical and not something that would ever happen, I choose to ignore it mostly. Also, someone close to me was killed by a train. I'm not completely traumatized by mentions of the trolley problem, but maybe it's just a little realer for me than it's meant to be. Like it's in my native language or something.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:53 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

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