Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there has been theological dissension over the nature of humans–whether humans are born bad who must be redeemed or whether we are born good, created in the image of God. It’s an important question, but framing it as binary or absolutes misses the point. We humans like certainty, absolutes, right-wrong, good-bad, all those binaries that enable us to choose the “right” side of an argument. The most defensible answer to the question of what is inborn, based on observation, is that we are all born with the capacity for good and evil in varying combinations, and our life circumstances and experiences may tip us in one direction or the other.
I take my philosophy from Aristotle and the golden mean, that every virtue lies between two vices, its opposite and its extreme, and we all find ourselves lying somewhere on that spectrum in our own thinking and behavior. I also take my philosophy from statistics, because I am more economist than theologian, and in statistics, most of a population lies within one or two standard deviations of the mean. A little bit brave and a little bit cowardly, or a little bit brave and a little bit foolhardy. Generous on some days and stingy on others. Kind to our friends but not to our enemies. Accepting of people who look and talk and think like us, less tolerant of those who are different.
When we choose to create a public policy that maximizes safety and security, we lean to the original sin view of humankind, like the harsh anti-crime measures passed in the Clinton administration The result has not been redemption, but overcrowded prisons, convictions that are or should be overturned, and no rehabilitation. Released back into society with no skills and unable to find a job or housing, many of these people wind up back in jail after release, affirming the conviction that some people are just born bad. (If you haven’t seen the original or new version of West Side Story, this dilemma is the basis for one of the best songs in the movie and play, the one about Officer Krupke.)
A policy based on redemption would probably make the opposite error and turn some irredeemable people loose to do more harm—remember the Willie Horton ads devised by Lee Atwater for the 1988 presidential campaign? Both sides of the debate want to limit the discretion of judges, because the same offense gets widely different sentences depending on the judge. But they can’t agree on guidelines that meet their polar opposite views of humanity.
The harm done by binary thinking is not just about crime. It’ is also, for example, about whether people will be motivated to work for a living if the government provides them too much, or whether they will be unemployable or unable to earn an adequate living if the government gives them too little (education, health care, access to decent housing). That abstruse theological debate about original sin and original blessing lies behind many of our public policy dilemmas.
It is the task of democratic process to honor both of those views , each of which contains a grain of truth, and to craft policies that empower and encourage the best in each of us while constraining the worst. We can begin that process by examining our own conception of original sin, original blessing, and the possibility of redemption.