Note: This is the second part of two posts. The first part may be found here, and the introductory remarks, at the very least, are well worth reading, as there I explain the cirmcumstances by which these blog entries were conceived, and I stipulate the background that underpins my thinking.
Yesterday, in his response to my response to his question, C. August posed another question, and also began to expound on an idea about the Founders that was quite interesting. I would love to hear more of this thoughts on this, but in the meantime, in this post I will respond to his further query.
C. AUGUST FURTHER QUERIES
"You highlighted as one of the qualities that make us human "the need to know the difference between good and evil, and the need to choose the good in order to choose life." I'm curious how you determine what is the good?
The Objectivist view is succinctly put in Galt's speech: "All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil." And this of course is based on the metaphysical facts of man's nature as a rational being, and one of volitional consciousness, who must pursue values (the good) to further his life (the ultimate value)."
Firstly, the Objectivist view so beautifully put by Rand in her exposition that you quoted from Atlas Shrugged demonstrates that although she was not raised in a religious home, she nevertheless learned the ultimate Jewish value. Life. Rand clearly retained that Jewish value (among others) when she developed and explained her philosophy, however she did not overtly draw upon Jewish tradition to do so. Rather she built her philosophy on the basis of human nature, specifically in terms of human psychology, by which I mean how a human being thinks and makes choices. Since Rand did that, and did it so well that I have nothing to add to it, I will instead draw upon Jewish tradition and mythos to make the same point.
As a Jew, I also say that the ultimate value is Life. And I would add that I do not mean here an afterlife, but rather this life, embodied on this earth. As far as I know, there is no other, and thus Life must be lived for it's own sake, and not as preparation for death. (This is a major point of departure between Judaism and medieval Christianity). From a Jewish perspective, I come by this value from a Jewish perspective of the first Creation myth in B'reshit (Genesis).
The structure of this story, as written in Hebrew, demonstrates that it was never intended to be taken literally. The structure itself points to the reason that the Priestly author wrote it: it was to contrast the Israelite world-view about the value of life and the earth with that of the surrounding Akkadians. Certain Hebrew words would have recalled to the hearer the older, and very different creation story in the Enuma Elish. That the story has a sophisticated mythic structure is evident from the first Hebrew words "b'reshit bara elohim . . ." which can best be translated as "once, when G-d was about to create . . ." Whereas the Akkadian myth has the world created as a result of a war among the gods, and the earth itself was the shell of the dragon-goddess Tiamat, which points to the idea that embodied being is debased at best, the Priestly story tells of an orderly and lawful creation of the world by the peaceful spoken word. The orderly nature of the earth and all that inhabit it is demonstrated by the order of the days: each of the first three days is paired with the second three, so that light is paired with the sun, the expanse of the sky is paired with the birds of the air, and the separation of the dry land and ocean is paired with the life that lives on each. And each physical act of creation is termed "good." Just in case the hearer had missed the point. In particular, in this story the human being that is created on the sixth day is called "very good." Embodied human life is very good, and belongs to the physical universe.
Human life is very good in Jewish eyes, as it is, and on this earth. I will not expound again in detail on the Jewish understanding of the story of garden, as I have done that in several posts, including a digression in Rules for Patriots? Suffice it to say that there is no concept of Original Sin in Judaism. Human life is good as it is. Right here on this earth. We have no need of heaven(In the morning service, Jews deliberately repudiate the concept of Original Sin by saying: "The soul that you created within me is good . . .". This was necessary to keep that concept firmly out of Jewish thought during our sojourn in Christian Europe).
The mythos behind the rest of that story is that human beings cannot go back to the womb. We cannot forever be children living in the garden, needing to make no effort to live. That would not be Paradise, rather it would become hell. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor for the human understanding of our own mortality, and the urgency that puts upon our efforts to sustain our lives. As I said above, human beings, alone of all of the mammals, know that they are mortal, and make their living on the earth by use of their minds, and they therefore have the power and responsibility to choose between that which promotes life (good) and that which destroys life (evil). The fruit of the tree, therefore, implies not a fall from grace, but a promotion to conscious being, and it did indeed make humans "like gods" even as the snake (the ancient symbol of wisdom) promised that it would. Wisdom and knowledge come with a price; that price is the need to exert effort to comprehend, to learn, and finally, the knowledge that life is finite and therefore, that the time of a human life is precious and irreplacible to its owner.
From this story we can then infer these values: Life is good, death is evil. Knowledge is life promoting, willful ignorance promotes death and is thus evil. Humans must work to promote their own lives and those of their offspring, and they must make choices and take action to do so. It is therefore evil to take away a person's ability to freely act upon their own knowledge and make their own choices. Thus freedom is good, and slavery is evil. Since "by the sweat of your brow you must earn your bread", a human being has the need of property: the fruit tree and the wheat field. Thus property is good, but theft is evil.
The ability and necessity to choose is a result of consciousness. It is a quality that is ascribed only to G-d and to human beings, and this is why there is story in Midrash that depicts angels as being jealous of the human condition. However, sin (in Hebrew, aiming badly) is the result of making the wrong choices or, and more importantly, the deliberate refusal to consciously choose. This is so because that refusal will inevitably result in death and destruction.
This tale is told again as exposition, where in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we read:
"I have set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse*; Choose life, that you and your children may live!"
* The parallel structure of Hebrew poetry pairs thusly: life = a blessing, death = a curse. This is not a magical incantation, it is poetry.
This, then, is how I determine what is good. That which promotes life and those means by which a person can protect, preserve and enhance his or her life.