Clash of Vocations
Robert West and I were classmates in college. He mentioned that his debate club team will compete soon. I asked him what his team will debate. He answered that they will argue for a certain proposition, and the next day, for the opposite proposition.
I was baffled. But, but, they can’t both be true! He patiently explained that debate club rules require such reversals. My perplexity turned to alarm. You mean... you’re expected to argue for something that you don’t believe?!
I was shocked. I was scandalized. I felt like I had seen something indecent. Robert West was visibly disgusted by my naiveté. He tried to tell me that the whole point of the debate club is to develop rhetorical skill; but I remained obdurate in my puritanism.
Looking back, I now see that our clash of values was due to different vocations. I was training to become a mathematician. My ideal was to Discover the Truth. He was training to become a lawyer. His objective was to Win the Argument. Ultimately my job was to ensure that the bridges don’t fall down; his job was to ensure that, when the bridges do fall down, his clients don’t go to prison.
In the many decades since then, I have slowly learned the pragmatic necessity for both vocations; but just then I didn’t understand.
We graduated and went our separate ways. Later we re-encountered, online, in a discussion group with a small group of friends. He and I often disagreed; for instance, on the reality of fictitious social constructs. I was moved to write:
‘Nonexistence has consequences.’
He was moved to reply:
‘ “Nonexistence has consequences”. True, but - ’
- and right there I stopped reading! True, but?! Triggered, I stood up. I stormed out of the room. To calm down, I did household chores. After I regained my composure, I returned to the computer. I sat down. I braced myself, and I read on. He said “true, but” even false social constructs have reality due to community pressure. I begged to differ.
In a related development, he and I later differed on the relative merits of motivational self-deception vs therapeutic self-honesty.
But one day we did agree on something; namely, that the correct name for our species is not “Homo Sapiens”, meaning “Man the Wise”; for that name is aspirational, not descriptive. We concurred that a scientifically accurate name for our kind is “Homo Semisapiens”, meaning “Man the Half-Wise”. I was pleased that we agreed.
But then I stopped hearing from him. Soon my other online friends told me that he had died.
I was horrified. Did agreeing with me kill him? Or did the approach of death weaken his rhetorical resolve? Perhaps Robert West could have argued for either of these propositions with equal plausibility. I, myself, will never know for sure.
Recently I’ve learned another name for our species:
Meaning “Man the Liar”.
Only Homo Mendax or Homo Semisapiens would look at our history and call us Homo “Sapiens”. So which are we really, liar or halfwit? I call that question the “crook-or-fool dilemma”.
The solution is that everyone lies to a crook, so they become fools; and fools lie to themselves, so they become crooks. Therefore Mendax and Semisapiens meet in the middle.
“Discover the Truth” is a Semisapiens ideal; “Win the Argument” is a Mendax objective. So I played Semisapiens when I said “nonexistence has consequences”, and West played Mendax when he said “True, but”. Even so, we are one.
Plato wrote that the wise must become virtuous, to remain wise. I concur: Mendax becomes Semisapiens. But Semisapiens becomes Mendax: therefore the virtuous must wise up, to remain virtuous.