Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Objectivist Questions (Part II)

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.


"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.


C. August said...

Thank you for the very detailed response. It's a lot to go through, with the same amount of specialized (Jewish) language and concepts that non-Objectivists must have to deal with when reading detailed Objectivist philosophical arguments. As such, I'd like to gloss over those specifics as much as possible, and try to dig into the fundamental concepts you presented.

To put it simply, it sounds to me like you have recast Judaism to emulate Objectivism... or perhaps, recast Objectivism to fit Judaism. I'm not sure which. Maybe you even mean that they are basically the same in your eyes, and no recasting was necessary?

Either way, I'm left with two main questions.

1) Do you think a god actually exists? You called it a metaphor "for the fullness of life, for wholeness, and for human freedom and dignity. G-d is not some alien entity that resides outside the universe, but rather, is some part of who we are as human beings." To put it in Objectivist (Aristotelian) terms, are you making the metaphysical argument that existence exists, and nothing else, with god as simply a metaphor for the greatness of human existence? (as an aside, why the G-d notation?) Or is god both a metaphor _and_ some sort of super-existential entity?

In other words, are you an atheist? I honestly can't tell.

2) Your definition of "what is the good?" is, as you know, very close to the Objectivist formulation. You said:

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.

To put it bluntly, do you reject the self-sacrifice of altruism? Much like the Founders held a self-interested view implicitly, yet explicitly advocated Christian altruism, it is quite common for people to have mixed premises here. Or is your ethical view as consistently rationally selfish as what your statements seem to suggest?

I really do appreciate the context you presented, and find your view of Judaism quite interesting. But in the end, I still don't know where you stand on these basic issues. A person either believes in the primacy of existence, denying any part of the supernatural, or not. A person either believes that rational egoism is the moral ideal, rejecting the millennia-old code of altruism, or not.

Of course, people can be mixed, just like the economy, but even granting one small part of the mystical/altruistic premises concedes the whole battle. As Rand said, in any compromise between food and poison, only death can win.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

C. August, your comment is more food for exciting thought. I enjoy this kind of discussion because it is forcing me to consider what I know and act upon unconsciously on a conscious level, at the level of definitions and premises. This kind of inductive thinking is so rare at the university level that it is not often that I feel intellectually stimulated and excited by ideas.

I will respond to both of your further questions in another post. Please do not not consider my long delay as a rejection of your questions or as disinterest on my part. I wear many hats, and each one is time consuming.

Brianna said...

"it sounds to me like you have recast Judaism to emulate Objectivism... or perhaps, recast Objectivism to fit Judaism"

I would agree with this basic observation, as well as comment that this is by far the most interesting interpretation of the basic story of the Bible that I have ever heard. I deeply enjoyed reading it, both for its originality and its content.

You hinted that your views of Judaism are accepted parts of that religion, but I'd like to ask explicitly if this is so? If so, that might perhaps help to explain why the Jews have always excelled throughout history, and why they have always faced such horrible persecution.