Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Seminarians and the Good Samaritan

My good parisian friend threw the ethical gauntlet down during a recent note. He spoke of the 1973 study by John Darley and Daniel Batson entitled, "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior." The study was to see if seminarians, crudely if you will, 'practiced what they preached.'

Richard Beck's blog, "Experimental Theology" summarizes the study well.

The study involved seminarians preparing for the ministry. The seminarians were randomly split into two groups. The first group was asked to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The second group prepared a sermon on a non-helping religious subject. The seminarians were then scheduled to deliver this sermon at an appointed time and place.

Upon arriving at the place the seminarians were told that the location has been changed at the last minute and that they were to go to a new location. At this point, the seminarians were split into three groups. A third of the seminarians were put under strong time pressure, told that they needed to get to the new venue in a hurry (high hurry). A third was put under moderate time pressure (intermediate hurry). And finally, the third group was told that they could take their time getting to the new venue (low hurry). After this hurry manipulation the seminarians were pointed to the exit and directed to proceed to the next venue.

Now, along the route (an alleyway) to the next venue Darley and Batson had placed a person who showed signs of distress. Specifically, they were sitting slumped against the wall, head down and eyes closed. As the subject passed, the confederate would cough twice and groan. Basically, they showed signs of abdominal pain. As the seminarians passed the key variable was recorded: Would they stop to check on the groaning person?

The findings were less than what romantic seminarians and seminaries would like to find.

Of the 40 subjects, 16 (40%) offered some form of direct or indirect aid to the victim, 24 (60%) did not. The percentages of subjects who offered aid by situational variable were, for low hurry, 63% offered help, intermediate hurry 45%, and high hurry 10%; for helping-relevant message 53%, task-relevant message 29%.

What does this say of ethics? Nothing which shouldn't surprise us. Christians too feel constraints when confronted with deadlines. Christians too are sometimes unresponsive to concrete and tangible social problems.

As the study indicates that ethical choices might be strongly correlated to the context of the ethical decision, it should be no surprise that Christians should take seriously what type of environment they want to intentionally root themselves in. (Perhaps, Amish have something here)?

Also, I agree with my friend that ethics can often play a public role outside of individuated decision making. Christian ethicists have a great task in helping develop social policies and suggest the adoption or proscription of certain social mores.

I also agree with Richard Beck that it also is a clarion call for Christians to slow down: a chance to smell the roses while also considering the ethical quandaries that surround us. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the celebration of the Mass seems a perfect place to start.

Yet, for all of these other reasons, one principle reason Christians may not properly respond to morally atomized situations is that we live in a legal not virtue driven society. I hope to take up this issues after finals.


Tinman said...

I'm on my way to class to present a case study on my interaction with a homeless woman while performing my duties at church. I'm ashamed to say that it is only because I was required to be outside that I spoke with her. I look forward to more of your thoughts on this subject.

Mark said...

Thanks for the added detail to the experiment.

I started my own blog, it's at:

Looking forward to hearing more...good luck with Finals.

Mark Koester said...

I decided to take your point "by the horns" as we say in philosophy about ethics (whether Christian or atheist) being something that exists in the legal and not the virtue world. This is what I came up with. I'm interested to hear what you think: