How Do You Say ‘Let the Fat Man Die’ in French?

How language influences morals.

Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP
Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP
Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP

If asked to kill one person in order to save many, you might have some questions (and that's putting it lightly): Is the person you'd be killing kind and just -- or an unapologetic criminal? What about the others for whom the person would be sacrificed?

What might not seem relevant to this difficult decision-making is the language used when you were asked to do the deed. But, it turns out, language might actually matter a great deal.

In a recent study, researchers at universities in Spain, Connecticut, and Chicago asked people to consider a well-known ethical test called the "fat man trolley dilemma": Would they shove one heavy person in front of a runaway, speeding trolley, knowing that his death could stop the car from hitting five other people in its path? The researchers presented the problem, on paper, to subjects in the United States, Spain, France, South Korea, and Israel. Based on random assignment, the subjects read the question in either their native tongue or a second language, and they were required to answer in the same language.

If asked to kill one person in order to save many, you might have some questions (and that’s putting it lightly): Is the person you’d be killing kind and just — or an unapologetic criminal? What about the others for whom the person would be sacrificed?

What might not seem relevant to this difficult decision-making is the language used when you were asked to do the deed. But, it turns out, language might actually matter a great deal.

In a recent study, researchers at universities in Spain, Connecticut, and Chicago asked people to consider a well-known ethical test called the "fat man trolley dilemma": Would they shove one heavy person in front of a runaway, speeding trolley, knowing that his death could stop the car from hitting five other people in its path? The researchers presented the problem, on paper, to subjects in the United States, Spain, France, South Korea, and Israel. Based on random assignment, the subjects read the question in either their native tongue or a second language, and they were required to answer in the same language.

Across the board, the researchers found that when asked in a nonnative language, people were more willing to push the fat man: 18 percent of people asked in their mother tongue said they would push him, while 44 percent said the same when a second language was used.

Prior research has solidly established that speaking in a second language creates emotional distance from subject matter. Still, the researchers were stunned by the extent to which this distance seems to have come into play on an ethical question, says Boaz Keysar, one of the study’s authors.

The findings have implications for judges, jury members, doctors, and others who may be faced with moral dilemmas every day in a second language; this is particularly true in countries where the ranks of immigrants are growing. Critically, the researchers caution that they are not suggesting people are making bad decisions when using second languages. Rather, they emphasize that it is important for decision-makers to understand how a potentially surprising factor may be influencing their thinking.

"You think that your morals are, to some extent, constant across the board," says Albert Costa, one of the paper’s authors. "But [language] really fundamentally changes the way you feel about these acts."

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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