Cody Delistraty in Nautilus:
Tragedy can strike us any time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of it. When Frank’s dog was struck and killed by a car in front of his house, he grew curious what Fido might taste like. So he cooked him up and ate him for dinner. It was a harmless decision, but, nonetheless, some people would consider it immoral. Or take incest. A brother, who’s using a condom, and his sister, who’s on birth control, decide to have sex. They enjoy it but keep it a secret and don’t do it again. Is their action morally wrong? If they’re both consenting adults and not hurting anyone, can one legitimately criticize their moral judgment?
Janet Geipel of the University of Trento in Italy posed fictional scenarios like these to German-, Italian-, and English-speaking college students in each student’s native language and in a second language that they spoke almost fluently. What Geipel found in her July 2015 study is that “the use of a foreign language, as opposed to a native language, elicited less harsh moral judgments.” She concluded that a distance is created between emotional and moral topics when speaking in a second language.
People are more likely to act less emotionally and more rationally when speaking their second language, according to Geipel. Nelson Mandela seemed to have understood this dynamic decades ago when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The distinction is an important one: If moral decisions are contingent on the language in which they are posed then the decisions of people who must work in a foreign language on a daily basis—immigrants, international corporations, international institutions—would need to be reevaluated. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs in Paris or the United Nations in Burma, decisions made by people speaking their non-native languages appear to be less concerned with morality and more concerned with rationality and utilitarianism.