Independence vs. Interdependence: Should I follow my conscience?

Barbies by MattelEliana Dockterman’s article in the February 8, 2016 issue of Time discussed Mattel’s plans to diversify Barbie dolls into four body types: original, petite, tall, and curvy. It said Mattel decided to sell the dolls in mixed sets to avoid the problem of “a sensitive mom read[ing] into the gift of a curvy doll a comment on her daughter’s weight.” A modern world sees beauty in diversity, and no single doll can reflect that standard of beauty. Thus, Barbie will no longer be one independent doll—Barbie has evolved into an interdependent set.

The set is interdependent because segregating the dolls would diminish Barbie’s beauty, but focus groups at Mattel reveal that lesson has yet to reach young girls. All of the dolls are named “Barbie” but, when asked which doll is Barbie, “the girls invariably point to a blonde.” The response we would prefer is: “That’s a trick question! They are all Barbie together.”

Why don’t we get that response? It may be traced back to the story of the forbidden fruit, a story which is shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and which strongly influenced the development of self-concept in Western culture. The oldest version (in the Torah) may be translated as follows:

Bereishit 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman: ‘Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden? 2 And the woman said unto the serpent: ‘Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’ 4 And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die; 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.’ 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband [Adam] with her, and he did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. 8 And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. 9 And the Lord God called unto the man, and said unto him: ‘Where art thou?’

10 And he said: ‘I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

11 And He said: ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’

12 And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman: ‘What is this thou hast done?’

And the woman said: ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.’

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent: ‘Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. 15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.’

16 Unto the woman He said: ‘I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’

17 And unto Adam He said: ‘Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. 18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. 19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’

20 And the man called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ 23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

Through this story we have inherited the doctrine that we are “as God, knowing good and evil”. It teaches us to see ourselves as decision-makers of infinite moral potential. This doctrine comes in two very different varieties:

The Independence Doctrine tells us that each human has a conscience which has god-like moral competence, such that any human has the independent ability to achieve moral perfection simply by obeying his or her own conscience. Believers of this doctrine interpret the story of the forbidden fruit as an explanation for the origin of these amazing consciences. Some Christians suggest that consciences were imperfect until Christ sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, but those who believe the Independence Doctrine nonetheless maintain that, for at least the last 2000 years, humans have had the means to achieve independent moral perfection:

Jeremiah 31:33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

The tendency to look for Barbie and beauty in an individual doll goes with this tendency to look for goodness in an individual person. The Independence Doctrine gives us the expectation that a solitary individual could be sufficient. Believers in this doctrine tend to pray “Give me the wisdom,” or “Let my words be pleasing…” They worry less about the wisdom, goodness and beauty of others because they believe one can be good (enough) despite segregating oneself from those who are not.

The Interdependence Doctrine tells us that we cannot achieve moral perfection independently, but we can contribute meaningfully to the development of a society which will converge on god-like morality collectively if allowed to evolve. Believers of this doctrine interpret the story of the forbidden fruit as an explanation for the origins of this social evolution. They point to history, recorded in scripture and elsewhere, as demonstrating a pattern of discovery in which each generation inherits greater and greater opportunity to recognize moral behavior, and they explain the conscience as merely a snapshot of how social norms currently stand.

Christians who hold the Interdependence Doctrine may believe that love is the greatest treasure we can have and that love goes hand-in-hand with interdependence, so a loving God would want everyone to be interdependent and would withhold divine wisdom from anyone who would use it to become less dependent on others. Thus, God will not fulfill the prophesy of Jeremiah until we abandon independence.  Christians sometimes refer to this as the “Body of Christ”:

Ephesians 4:11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

The opposite of independence is not conformity.  Too many articles about independence vs. interdependence falsely portray interdependent individuals as lacking anything unique to contribute. To the contrary, the new interdependent Barbie dolls are more diverse than the independent dolls. Likewise, moral interdependence does not entail a lack of independent moral thought. Socrates explained the idea around 400 BC with the term “social gadfly.” The function of social gadflies is to question prevailing norms. Rather than make the gadflies right (impossible, since they question even each other), this is supposed to spur non-gadflies towards progress. According to the Interdependence Doctrine, neurons produce impulses, brains turn impulses into thoughts, and diverse societies gradually distinguish good ideas from bad ones.  Neurons can fire independently, but they cannot think independently; likewise, brains can think independently, but their independent moral facilities are limited (at best).

While it has been said that something was finished on the cross or in praying the sinner’s prayer, it is clear that our sanctification must continue throughout our lives and even after death. The doctrine of interdependence explains the mechanics of this sanctification: Abraham was part of an interdependent community which continues to this day, so Abraham continues to be sanctified as that community is sanctified. Thus, although current work in human rights, globalization, and health/environmental awareness may be inevitable consequences of the lives of Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Muhammad (etc), such current work nonetheless deserves our attention. Our response to the legacy we inherited should not be merely to accept it, but to advance it (even slightly).

Both doctrines contain conceptual elements found in the story of the forbidden fruit: moral agency, moral knowledge, moral growth/perfection, obedience vs. exploration, and convergence between humanity and divinity. However, the two doctrines yield very different answers to the practical question “Should I follow my conscience?” The Independence Doctrine says “Yes, your conscience is as wise as God—it is perfect.” In contrast, the Interdependence Doctrine says, “It depends upon who you are. Since society advances by modifying social norms, it needs most people to follow those norms most of the time, but also needs some people to explore potential improvements sometimes.”

If the second answer seems indecisive, that may be because it is a response to a trick question.  How can we ask for an objective answer which applies to everyone, if “my conscience” refers to a subjective experience? Similarly when we ask, “Which one is Barbie?” the question makes sense only if not all dolls are Barbie. It has been said that there is no such thing as a bad question, but whether these questions make sense depends upon their answers. To put this another way, the doctrines are like worldviews in that certain questions make no sense unless you happen to hold the associated doctrine.

I maintain that the worldview of the Independence Doctrine constrained scientific imagination in recent times. For over a century experiments have been confirming that we divide into types which come to different moral conclusions, yet no one bothered to test whether those types are interdependent. It was simply assumed (with no evidence) that one of the types can achieve independent moral perfection. Discrimination between interdependent types would harm society, but Jonathan Haidt, Evan Rosenberg and Holly Hom initially assumed that the evaluativism they discovered benefits society—they didn’t bother to consider whether the types might be interdependent. If worldviews can delay the course of science for a century or more, if they can can block girls from perceiving Barbie as diverse even when Mattel creates obviously diverse dolls, then the work of moving forward may be less a work of science or art than a work of social change.

Contrary to Dockterman’s article, a quick check of Mattel’s website reveals that they are selling the new dolls individually. That means Mattel is giving you the power to change the world. You can encourage your friends to buy Barbie in sets. GI-Joe figurines, with their diverse specializations, empowered children to invent stories in which teamwork was essential to competitive success. Let’s empower the next generation to invent stories in which teamwork is also essential to beauty and goodness. Let’s hope to hear Ken saying, “Wow, Barbie, what a beautiful family!”