Chapter 12: A Weedless World

Several days into my first meditation retreat, I was taking a walk in the woods when I encountered an old enemy. Its name is Plantago major, and it is commonly known as the plantain weed. Years earlier, when I lived in Washington, DC, my lawn had been afflicted by this weed, and I spent many hours battling it—most of them just pulling it out of the ground, but sometimes I got so desperate that I’d use weed killer. I like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would devote much time to loathing forms of foliage, but I have to admit that my attitude toward this plant was in some sense one of hostility.

Yet now, on this meditation retreat, I was struck—for the first time ever—by the weed’s beauty. Maybe I should be putting the word weed in quotes, because to see a weed as beautiful is to question whether it really should be called a weed. And that is the question I asked myself as I stood there looking at my former foe. Why was this green-leafed thing called a weed, whereas other nearby things that fit the same description weren’t? I looked at those nearby things, and then at the weed, and found myself unable to answer the question. There seemed to be no objective visual criteria that distinguished weeds from nonweeds.

In retrospect, I guess I would call this my first close brush with the experience of emptiness. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic—and certainly it wasn’t as pervasive and persistent—as the experiences described in the previous chapter by Rodney Smith and Gary Weber. But it had the key characteristic of their experience: the weed was projecting its identity less strongly than it traditionally had. Though as visually discernible as ever, it was in some sense less dramatically marked off from the surrounding vegetation than before. It now lacked the essence-of-weed that had previously made it stand out from the other plants and seem uglier than they seemed.

So essence matters! One minute you see a certain essence in something and you want to kill it, and the next minute the essence has vanished and you don’t want to kill it.

Of course, the stakes aren’t all that high here. So far as I know, weeds aren’t capable of pleasure or pain, so yanking one out of the ground isn’t a grave moral transgression. Still, with weeds—more than with lamps or pencils or eyeglasses—we are approaching the realm of moral psychology, the realm of judgments about good and bad that have consequences for the way we treat other beings. And when the beings in question are sentient—human beings, for example—the stakes can be high.

These moral stakes are the main reason I’m spending so much time on the doctrine of emptiness. At the root of the way we treat people, I think, is the essence we see them as having. So it matters whether these perceptions of essence are really true or whether, as the doctrine of emptiness suggests, they are in some sense illusions.

From a Darwinian standpoint, the reason people attribute essence to other people is the same reason they attribute essence to things in general. Fellow human beings, no less than food or tools or predators or shelter, were part of the environment in which we evolved. So natural selection designed us to react to them in particular ways, and it engineered those reactions by giving us feelings toward them, and those feelings give shape to the essence we sense in them. But fellow human beings were a more complicated part of our environment than, say, shelter or tools, and they were a very, very important part. So it stands to reason that we would possess specialized mental machinery for sizing people up and then assigning them an essence.

Our Essence-of-Person Machinery

Decades of social psychology experiments have shed light on how that machinery works. For starters, it works fast. We start sizing people up the moment we first encounter them, and in some cases we can do a good job on the basis of little evidence. For example, if you show people a short videotape of someone talking or engaging in social interaction and then ask them to assess something about the person—her professional competence, for example, or her status—the assessments match up pretty well with more objective measurements. That holds true even when there’s no audio, so that all the cues are nonverbal. And a judgment rendered after thirty seconds is almost as likely to be accurate as a judgment rendered after five minutes.

Two Harvard psychologists conducted a meta-analysis of dozens of these “thin-slice” studies and concluded that, after a very brief observation, “some stable underlying essence is picked up by judges.” By “judges,” of course, they meant the people in the experiments who did the observing, but they might as well have been talking about all of us; judging is what we’re designed to do.

Our judgments can rest on evidence that may seem laughably superficial. For example, people considered attractive are more likely to be rated as competent. But this makes a certain kind of sense; attractive people do seem to have an easier time getting their way socially, and being able to pull social levers can be a big part of competence.

When it comes to making moral judgments, we don’t put so much stock in looks. Attractive people aren’t much more likely to be judged as having integrity or being considerate than unattractive people. That too makes sense, since there’s no reason to think they are more considerate or conscientious. However, one thing judgments about moral fiber have in common with judgments about competence and status is that we often make them on the basis of a single data point. Though various experiments show this, there’s no point in trotting one out: just reflect on your own behavior. If you see a person stopping to help someone who is lying injured on the sidewalk, don’t you think, “Oh, what a nice person”? If you see a person walking briskly past someone lying injured on the sidewalk, don’t you think, “Oh, what a not-so-nice person”?

I know what you’re thinking: But people who stop to help the needy are nice. And people who walk briskly past them aren’t nice.

Actually, you’re wrong! A famous study published in 1973 showed as much….