Subways and Original Sin

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:
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.

On Helping:
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.
Maybe humans are depraved. But if Saint Augustine collapsed on a New York subway people, complete strangers, would rush to help him.

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6 thoughts on “Subways and Original Sin”

  1. Numbers, as in "groups", do deter one from acting independently. It is somehow ingrained to the average human that if there is a large group and no one is stepping forward, then why should they? It is hard to break away from the 'herd" and do something differently for fear that one is breaking a "norm" of some kind, even if an unknown norm....

  2. While I agree with your sentiment and your overall stance (being somewhat a Pelagian myself), I do feel the need to mention that many (if not most) Calvinists would not claim that persons are as evil as they could be; nor would they claim that "evil" is something that can even be measured horizontally (which is something you hint at in your post). Rather, I think what the doctrine of TD should be understood as is total "inability," in that reaching God on one's own is an impossibility because the stigma of sin is wrought through in every deed and intent. They would generally claim that this is more of a vertical view, one that compares (albeit wrongly, I would claim) a proportional difference between man's view of good and God's.

    So, it's not that Calvinists think that man is horizontally evil - most would claim that people are capable of doing good things for the human sphere - but rather they would argue that all such deeds end up as "filthy rags" before the perfect and infinite God.... which raises other concerns altogether, but I think (hope) you get my point.

  3. Fascinating observations. Mass Transit proves another thing about humans and goodness - we are amazingly capable of restraining violent tendencies. If you cram 300 monkeys in a noisy pressurized metal tube hurtling through the air at 500mph those monkeys tear each other apart before they arrive. They do not, sit passively in their restraints and roll their eyes when a neighbor annoys them.

    On the other hand, it is all too easy to point to circumstances where bystanders in the hundreds and millions did nothing while others were hurt. A recent example. It probably depends on where and when Augustine fell down if there would be any good samaritan behavior available.

  4. To the Three A's,
    Those are helpful points and clarifications. I don't want the post to be naive about human nature and evil. It would be horrible to let one's guard down and allow injustice in our time. So I think it important to always know what humans (myself included) are capable of. That would be a framing of total depravity I could get behind: A recognition that any one of us is capable of horrific evil.

    On a different note, I've always puzzled about the Calvinist notion that all we bring to God is rubbish. I think if someone does something courageous for others, dying to save someone, God gives them "credit" for that. Not that this credit gets a person all the way to God. But there has to be, to my mind, some human effort that gets "reckoned as righteousness." There has to be a "Well done, good and faithful servant!" side to salvation. It's DB's notion of costly grace. You can't earn your way into heaven. But you sure as hell ought to give it a try...

  5. I've never believed in Original Sin and even believers seem to be very conflicted about what, exactly, is the specific content of that sin-is it pride, ignorance, lust, disobedience, folly, hunger? Clearly people have a long history, some detailed in various holy and unholy scriptures, of acting cruelly, selfishly, angrily, thoughtlessly, dangerously--but those things aren't always seen as "sinful." Look at the biblical heroes and their acts, many of which are redeemed from horror only because they are prospectively or retrospectively done on god's orders (I'm thinking here of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac, and of Abraham's various cheats and strategems as he tries to get land). Other things are treated as "sinful" with respect to god and society but we no longer even think of them as meaningfully moral (wearing cloth made of two kinds of interwoven thread, eating shrimp, getting sick with 'leprosy').

    Humans are capable of a lot--a lot of loving, selfless acts and a lot of selfish and destructive acts. But absent family and society we can't even begin to talk about whether an act is selfless or selfish. Except for "the selfish gene" we don't actually think of bacteria viruses as acting selfishly or selflessly. We talk about living communities in these terms only metaphorically if those communities are not made up of more or less sentient beings.

    So when we are talking about acts vis a vis others--rushing to help someone in a subway accident/rushing away after picking someone's pocket we are always talking about society and family and how our actions as individuals help or hurt those larger social entities. But even with that caveat I'm not sure that we can know exactly which acts are "sinful/destructive" and which acts are loving/productive. The idiot and the saint? The idiot may end up performing a function for others that the saint shrinks from because of the saints focus on the larger good (or the smaller good).

    When a crowd of people stands around not knowing what to do for a sick student, or relying on the assumption that someone else in the crowd is probably a nurse, we can't assign a motive to the standing around as either sinful/neglectful or virtuous. After all, crowds sometimes contain people who rush to help as rubberneckers and who do more harm than good. They may even contain people who pretend to have medical skills they don't have. Its far from clear what the right response is in a crisis.


  6. It's tough to look at a child and see sin or inherent evil, but try to remember that the standard of good and evil is not ours but God's. In that light I'm deeply flawed and prone to sin much more than good. The best question to ask is "What would I do if no one was looking?".

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