Trees, Values, and Sam Harris

People are fond of dismissing the relevance of philosophy by asking in a mocking tone, “So does a tree that falls in the forest make a sound?” The question is often asked in a derisive effort to show how uninteresting are the questions that occupy the attention of philosophers. However fun it might even be to think about, for some, surely nothing much rides on such a thing—this seems to be the implicit point anyway.

The original context of the question, of course, was Berkeley’s discussion of whether something like a noise takes place if nobody is there to hear it. There’s something a bit fishy about the idea there could be a noise absolutely nobody hears, but then again, there’s perhaps something even fishier about saying no noise could happen if nobody hears it. Most of us are inclined to think the noise would happen whether perceived or not. Berkeley’s solution was to say no unheard sounds ever happen because God’s always there to hear it, even if nobody else. This was his effort to spell out the dependence of the created order on the divine in a particularly strong sense.

Whatever you think about that particular conundrum, though, consider this question: Does value exist if nobody benefits from it? Suppose someone were to argue, as the famous atheist Sam Harris does in The Moral Landscape, that the only value we can meaningfully make sense of is the value of human flourishing, or the well-being of conscious creatures, something in that vicinity. On such a view, friendships, for example, are valuable exactly and only because they enhance well-being. And friendships of course do enhance our well-being, at least good friendships, at least most of the time. But is this the locus of their value? Harris would suggest it’s downright incoherent to argue its value could reside in anything else.

So what we have here is a Berkeleyan point, minus the God part, regarding value. Something’s value resides in its ability to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures, he wants to say. A falling tree in the forest only makes a sound if someone hears it. See the parallel? My question is: If we think it’s in some sense silly to insist on the latter, why isn’t it mistaken to insist on the former? In other words, why isn’t it perfectly coherent and indeed plausible to suggest that something like friendship has intrinsic value? Value, that is, apart from its consequences? That friendship produces wonderful consequences is undeniable, but does this fact alone commit us to having to say that the value of friendship resides exclusively in its benefits? Wouldn’t this be akin to saying that the only thing to say about a noise is how it’s perceived?

How about this picture instead of Harris’s? Friendship involves fellowship between two people, both of whom are valuable in and of themselves, and the fellowship between them is something of great intrinsic value and worth. It is something that is good, in some more-than-consequentialist sense. Experiencing something intrinsically good like that produces all manner of wonderful results, surely, but those results come about because the fellowship itself is a good thing. It’s not that the fellowship is a good thing merely because it produces those consequences. Friendship produces those consequences because it is beautiful and lovely in and of itself. Good things happen when we experience goodness.

If we live in a world in which the experience of great intrinsic goods inevitably produces healthy results—enhancements of our well-being or flourishing, let’s say—it’s going to be an ever-present and never entirely avoidable temptation to reduce the value of the good in question to its positive results—treating harshly any other sorts of suggestions. But the result, I think, is an emaciated caricature of reality. I think we do live in such a world, a world in which objective moral and even aesthetic values obtain, a world in which the love between a mother and her child or between friends yields the sweetest of fruit. But the enjoyment of that fruit is only possible because of a yet deeper reality: the value, dignity, and worth of the people in question, and the beauty and goodness of their loving relationships, motivated by something more than the good results those relationships produce.

I suppose, at bottom, Harris and I just have a very deep disagreement about the nature of reality. As an atheist, the good results that he notices things like friendships produce are about all he can point to as the locus of their goodness. I’m rather inclined to see those good results as a roadmap to a more ultimate source of value.