I'm going to confess. I'm a Pelagian at heart. With Erasmus over Luther. And Joseph Arminius over Calvin.
Part of this is my religious heritage. The Churches of Christ are Arminian and we don't teach the doctrine of original sin (sorry Augustine!). But part of this is also my conviction that I think people, generally speaking, are pretty decent. I know it's easy to point to cases of total depravity and evil, but 99% of the people in the world today got along with their neighbors. They went to work, did their job, and went home to dinner. Note that I'm not claiming that any of these people were Mother Teresa. Most of these people gossiped, lusted, or acted on some prejudice or stereotype. So I guess it's a matter of standards. For the most part, I tend to think that most of what counts as human "sin" is the product of stupidity rather than vice. Folly and foibles rather than "total depravity."
I was reminded of this today while reading a great article in Slate about the psychology of subway behavior. The article, Underground Psychology, is by Tom Vanderbilt. The article surveys the quirky, surprising and illuminating research conducted by psychologists looking at how we behave in the mass transit "laboratory":
So it's no surprise that, over the years, subways have regularly been the scenes of applied psychology experiments. Indeed, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as theories of "personal space" percolated through sociology, Edward T. Hall's study of "proxemics" was having its heyday, and the field of environmental psychology was coming into its own, it seemed that any New York City subway rider might be some psychologist's "confederate" and everyone else a possible bellwether of la condition humane. A banal note from a 1969 article titled "Good Samaritanism: An Underground Phenomenon?" from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology captures the spirit: "About 4,450 men and women who traveled on the 8th Avenue IND in New York City, weekdays between the hours of 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. during the period from April 15 to June 26, 1968, were the unsolicited participants in this study."One of the surprising things these studies reveal is that people are not as bad as we think they are. Two examples from Vanderbilt's article:
On Giving Up Your Seat for a Stranger:Maybe humans are depraved. But if Saint Augustine collapsed on a New York subway people, complete strangers, would rush to help him.
In one of the most well-known studies, social psychologist Stanley Milgram had students spontaneously ask subway riders to give up their seats. As Thomas Blass recounts in The Man Who Shocked the World, this experiment arose from the seeming erosion of a subway norm. As Milgram's mother-in-law had posed it to him: "Why don't young people get up anymore in a bus or a subway train to give their seat to a gray-haired elderly woman?"
Milgram wanted to know: What if you simply asked them to? And so students in his experimental social psychology class took to the underground to ask for seats, under a number of conditions (either with no justification, or offering a rationale like "I can't read my book standing up"). People were surprisingly compliant—a total of 68 percent either got up or moved over in the "no justification" condition.
The crucial context for many of the 1970s studies was the Queens murder of Kitty Genovese, whose cries for help were purportedly ignored by her neighbors. The Genevose story became the ur-narrative of uncaring urban pathology (even if its details were later called into question). The subway offered a perfect testing ground for the emerging subfield of "bystander studies." The aforementioned "Good Samaritan" paper, for example, had a Columbia University student stagger and collapse on a subway train, "looking supine at the ceiling." In some trials, the subject acted drunk; in others, ill. (People were more likely to help in the latter condition.) Interestingly, that study found no support for the so-called "diffusion of responsibility" effect—the idea, per the Genovese murder, that the more bystanders were present, the less likely it was that any one person would help. In fact, the reverse was found.