Learn a foreign language, you sinners (Bonus: dissertation topic for somebody)

I’m kidding about the title of this post. Mostly. This month’s Scientific American: Mind* has a fascinating article by Catherine Caldwell-Harris about moral reasoning in a native language versus a second or foreign language. You need a subscription to read the whole thing, but fortunately for those without a subscription this article seems like a re-hash of one she wrote for the broader Scientific American magazine.

The gist of the article is that people’s moral reasoning may be more “logical” when they think about moral issues like the “The Trolley Problem” in a language other than their native language. It would be a bit redundant to summarize all of the detail here since the article linked to above is not terribly long, so check it out and come back.

At this point, I should probably mention why the title of this post is a bit of an oversimplification. Whether or not more logical moral reasoning is better in all cases is subject to question. There is research that demonstrates that our emotional reasoning sometimes serves us quite well as it did for our ancestors for thousands of years. Probably the best popular level book that I’ve read on the topic is Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, though Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind also covers a bit of this ground (I talk a little more about this book in a post about serendipity).

Beyond that, and somewhat as an aside, recently some philosophers have questioned research on moral reasoning based on thought experiments like “The Trolley Problem.” Admittedly, I’ve only read about it second-hand; however, some aspects of it have always struck me as a little odd. For example, in one version, people are asked if it is morally permissible to push a very large man onto a set of trolley tracks in order to save five other people. The problem for me here is that I’m no small man myself and might could jump on the tracks, which complicates matters.

Those two caveats notwithstanding, I do think the article linked to above is saying some very interesting things. The idea that a second language may not be as closely tied to the emotional circuits of the brain is intriguing. For example, there are a lot of people that say when you learn a foreign language you need to be able to “think in that language.” This research may suggest that it is impossible to think in a second or foreign language in the same way a native speaker does. So, the implications could be relatively far reaching.

Bonus: Okay I promised someone a potential disseration topic and here it is. I distinctly remember being struck strongly, perhaps for the first time, by the moral issues surrounding the conquest of Canaan and the killing of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua when reading the text in Hebrew. So, here’s an avenue of potential research making use of the research paradigm followed in the article above and that I would love to see (but probably would never have time to do on my own unless someone wants to write me a big grant check) – have people read texts about herem in the Hebrew Bible, some in their native language as a control and some in a foreign language (it might be more interesting to have a variety of foreign languages not just Hebrew), and then develop a way to engage their moral reasoning about the passages and see what the results are. That dissertation would almost write itself. Just please mention me in the acknowledgements.

* I have a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and like to keep up with the most recent developments, so I subscribe to Scientific American: Mind, Psychology Today, and Mind World. Scientific American: Mind is by far the best. I think I get a jolt of dopamine every time it arrives in the mail.

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