Your Morals Depend on Language

Very interesting research article published in Plos ONE…just some paragraphs to make you read it thoroughly at


Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem. And yet here we report evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas. We argue that this stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language, consequently reducing the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. In general, we suggest that the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language induces utilitarianism. This shows that moral judgments can be heavily affected by an orthogonal property to moral principles, and importantly, one that is relevant to hundreds of millions of individuals on a daily basis.

People often believe that moral judgments about “right” and “wrong” are the result of deep, thoughtful principles and should therefore be consistent and unaffected by irrelevant aspects of a moral dilemma. For instance, as long as one understands a moral dilemma, its resolution should not depend on whether it is presented in a native language or in a foreign language. Here we report evidence that people tend to make systematically different judgments when they face a moral dilemma in a foreign language than in their native language.

We have shown that people’s moral judgments and decisions depend on the nativeness of the language in which a dilemma is presented, becoming more utilitarian in a foreign language.