Your Morals Depend on Language

Friday, June 20, 2014


Would you sacrifice one person to save the lives of five others? Your answer may depend on whether you consider the problem in your native tongue or a secondary one. Brooke speaks with psychologists Boaz Keysar and Albert Costa, who say that our solutions to moral dilemmas are affected by the language we use to think about them.


Albert Costa and Boaz Keysar

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [9]

Yasunori from Trondheim, Norway

I have two "mother tongues" so to speak. I am a natural and native Japanese speaker born in Japan, but also, almost all of my formal education has been in the US, so I am a fluent, fully acculturated English speaker and American citizen also. I mention this because with thinking in Japanese, I find that I am more culturally influenced (Japan is mostly Buddhist) and have a compassionate yet fatalistic perspective on the events described. But when I think in English, as an American, I take on a more calculating, logic based cultural thinking pattern. Interestingly, I arrived at the same conclusion, but from different thought pathways.

Dec. 23 2014 11:10 AM
Derek from Minnesota

So besides Justin, it seems the math problem was more interesting than the hostess of the show equating "logic" to murder.

Justin nails it but I would take it a step further.

Doing evil (murder) to bring about a good ("saving 5 lives) is ALWAYS WRONG. Of Course, unless you are a Jack Bauer fan.

See, you know what you are about to do is wrong (kill this dude to stop a train).

And you know that murder is wrong (mainly because God says so, but sure, you can make the pure rational case that it's wrong; societal breakdown etc).

But you don't know any of the following:

1) If this fat dude will actually stop the train, in which case you will have murdered for no "good" reason
2) If you don't act, will the people actually die ('cause as we all know by personal experience, our actions ALWAYS lead to their intended outcomes. Always. duh!)

So the hypothetical requires you to be "God" and KNOW THREE THINGS AS TRUE:


And of course, how would you ever know ALL that? You wouldn't, so it's smart/logical/moral etc NOT push the fat man.

You are better off jumping in front of the train yourself and praying. John 15:13

Jun. 22 2014 10:59 PM
Peter Ross from San Jose

I beg to differ. I understand the arithmetic and its logic but as "semantically" posed, the correct answer has TWO algebraically provable and correct answers depending on whether the application of the terms "more than" and "difference between" can be considered equivocal whether or not the ball is set at a dime or a nickel. You'd have to set up and pose the question far more carefully to fairly indict the students that set the ball at a dime and not a nickel. If it was a challenge that was setup at the cash-register and you put a dime down and the teller asked for a "dollar more", it would calculate and total as posed -- but if you placed a nickel down and asked for a "dollar more", the cashier would only get $1.05 for the bat and ball. QED: The ball has to be worth a DIME for the cashier to ask for a "dollar more" and indeed get a $1.10 for the two items in the transaction.

Jun. 22 2014 07:50 PM
Peter Ross from San Jose

If Peter from L.A. is correct and the two items cost $0.05 and $1.05 respectively, and the bat is a $1 more than the ball with the sum of the two totaling $1.10, how do you set that up on paper algebraically to display the sum of all factors that comprise the question, damn it?

Jun. 22 2014 06:30 PM
Justin from Brooklyn

In the bridge/train example, there are countless logical, rational and utilitarian reasons for considering it morally wrong to push the man from the bridge.

So with that in mind, I believe that the researchers are making a significant error when they say that people who decide to push the man are being more logical.

If anything, those people are making a clear error in reason, and have failed to think through the bridge/train puzzle sufficiently.

If you really take a moment to walk through this problem you can——and I'd argue, inevitably will——reach the conclusion that it's wrong to kill one innocent person to save five based on reason and utility alone. No emotion needed!

Think about it this way: To kill one innocent person to save the others is to take away from that person his right to life and liberty, to take away his right to choose, and to generally treat him as "a means to an end", rather than as "an ends" in and of himself.

No reasonable person would take the principle that "it's okay to treat human beings as a means to an end", and apply that principle universally.

Not only does this principle seem distasteful when you think it through and apply it universally, but acting in such a way is bad policy from the perspectives of both group and individual survival.

The empirical record clearly shows that societies which adopt moral systems where each individual is seen as an ends in and of himself, with the right to live and to choose, have better outcomes in general, for all people, and lower death rates overall.

Societies that enact these systems of voluntary cooperation and individual autonomy have longer life expectancies, better health, fewer fatal accidents, more wealth etc.,

So, *not* pushing the man from the bridge against his will = a society where more lives are saved on the whole. This is a net win from a rational perspective.

This is without even mentioning that from an individual perspective, it's a just a plain bad idea to kill the one innocent person to save five others.

This is because it invites retribution from the kin of that person, or the legal system, thereby lowering your own individual survival risk. And that is in addition to creating a higher death toll and more waste on a societal level.

Of course, this is a lot to think through on a rational level in a split second. So, it stands to reason that human beings who have an ingrained biological bias against this kind behavior have a distinct survival advantage on the whole. That would make this a kind of evolved response. And for good reason!

Treating human beings as a means to an end is just bad policy, not matter which way you look at it.

Jun. 22 2014 01:41 PM
Peter from Los Angeles

The items cost $0.05 and $1.05 (the bat is $1 more than the ball, with the sum of the two totaling $1.10).

Jun. 22 2014 12:06 PM
Douglas from El Paso

Very interesting report about how different words in different languages evoke different emotions, and how that affects decision-making. Topics like this one make OTM worth listening to.

Jun. 21 2014 12:47 PM

Solution to the bat riddle:

Jun. 21 2014 09:52 AM

1. If it's not $1 and 10 cents…. WHAT IS IT?? Brooke, that's the kind of thing I would expect you to deliver as the last line of the segment.
2. Your Israeli guest presumably has a native English-speaking wife -- but he would have had to actually state that, in order to make his concluding point.

Jun. 21 2014 09:48 AM

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