Moral Dilemma – two words that do not feature prominently , jointly or severally, in the tax advisor’s lexicon.
In the first half of the 20th Century when world wars were all the rage, moral dilemmas evolved from the gritty reality of combat. By the late sixties serious debate was banished to the periphery of existence along with Bras and the Bible.
In 1967 the ubiquitous moral dilemma that had every moral philosopher thinking involved a trolley hurtling out of control along a railway line towards 5 people bound to the tracks. All 5 were bound to die unless the chap with the moral dilemma diverted the trolley to a siding where a single individual would be unavoidably sent to kingdom come. Was the loss of one life preferable to the loss of five where there was an, albeit indirect, contribution to the lone death?
By 1996 the search for sound-bytes, together with advances in the human condition, had led to the addition of a bridge over the railway with a slobbering fat man sitting precariously on the parapet. Our friend with the moral dilemma now had a number of choices. He could pull the lever and be the indirect cause of the unpleasant demise of the single person on the siding; he could let the 5 on the track go west; or he could – very directly – push the fat git off the bridge , thus dispatching him to an oversized grave while stopping the trolley in its tracks. (The chap with the moral dilemma would not sacrifice himself because (1) he was too thin to stop the trolley and (2) moral philosophers are often people with their heads up their own backsides who have difficulty practicing what they preach).
Although the Utilitarian answer to this conundrum would be a toss-up between diverting the trolley or deflating the fat geezer (a 5-1 win for the human race), it was established that the most likely outcome would be to watch in horror as the 5 are trampled. Coming in second would be diversion of the trolley. The Fat Man would survive to spill over both sides of the middle-seat on an economy flight to Australia, as well as to invariably eat the last cake on the plate. Even though they could not stand his guts – normal people would shy away from actively taking the man’s life.
Last week I read in The Economist, however, that according to a recent book “Would You Kill the Fat Man?” when the question is posed to respondents in a foreign language, it is more likely that they will elect to kill the bridge-balancing- blubbery- baboon. This has nothing to do with xenophobia. (I must apologize to any rotund gentlement reading this post if I am sounding unintentionally offensive. I am currently on a diet trying to shrink my girth and I figured that, just like anti-Semites never become Jews and the English never become Irish – if I am disparaging enough about fat people, I will have conquered obesity for ever – fat chance).
The reason cited for the different results when talking in a foreign language stems from something I mentioned in my blog of April 28:
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, fast and slow’ talks about “expert intuition” – a Fire Chief who senses exactly when to leave a burning house before it collapses or a Chess Master who can instinctively advise the next three moves in somebody else’s game. It turns out that this comes from enormous practice and experience and not some magical eureka moment – a combination of System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (conscious) thinking. This allows for quick, highly complex, thoughts.
It turns out that when you are thinking foreign, you slide into System 2 thinking most of the time. As a result, while the Natural Born English Speaker instinctively decides he cannot shove the Fat Man over the edge, the foreigner is forced to ruminate more slowly over the question and is more likely to come to a utilitarian decision, which might just explain why Germany started two world wars.
This has consequences for tax consultancy (and just about every other verbal interaction for that matter). Last week I met with a gentleman from Southern Europe who, for the purposes of this post, we shall refer to as Umberto. Now, because Umberto was not called Frank, Henry or Michael, as we sat over some pretty complex tax issues I realized that, even putting my mouth into low gear and applying the hand brake, he was left hanging on for life to the rear bumper. Until I read the Economist article I assumed it was just a matter of language but now I realize that our thought processes were probably working on two different planes. The upshot is that, given that there are far more of them than us, English tax advisors should be forced to attend a course in English as a Foreign Language in which they are brainwashed into thinking in Pidgin.
It is parochial and naive to think that English has conquered the world. It is the world that has conquered English.
I think I am going to start speaking like Borat. It’s a very nice.