How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language

German philosopher Martin Heidegger said that “Language is the house of being.” Well apparently, it is the house of morality as well.  People who speak more than one language know the experience of being able to express certain emotions, judgements, and nuanced opinions in one language that are difficult to express in another.  A fascinating philosophical question is whether thinking in one language encourages a particular moral imagination that another language doesn’t.  Heidegger and other hermeneutical phenomenologists have argued, languages are not mere toolboxes for our thoughts, emotions and will, but shape the way we experience our own intentions in the first place. So in what kind of linguistic house does your ethics take up residence?

Recent psychological experiments, are shedding some light on how shifting your thinking from your native language to a foreign language affects your moral reasoning.  This research addresses a slightly different question regarding language and morality, but is interesting nevertheless.

As the author of this recent article in Scientific American writes:

“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?”

Author Julia Sedivy continues:

“Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? 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. This may seem paradoxical, but is in line with findings that reading math problems in a hard-to-read font makes people less likely to make careless mistakes (although these results have proven difficult to replicate).”

The article goes on to explore a host of possible, mostly psychological, explanations to explain the findings.  But Sedivy concludes, as any good psychological research should, with a more basic philosophic question:

“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.”

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