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Common sense – not always obvious or common

Sometimes, when trying to win an argument, a person might invoke the old “but it is surely just common sense that X is X or Y is Y”. And let’s face it, we all do it a lot of the time. Trouble is, this can lead us astray on difficult moral issues, for example, or in science, where “common sense” once led people of high intelligence to scoff at the notion of gravity, or that the earth was a sphere, etc.  For all I know, people once thought it was “common sense” to have absolute rulers, burn witches, keep slaves and shun those of other races.

I thought about this issue when I read this item by Bryan Caplan, in discussing the Michael Huemer book that Perry Metzger recently wrote about here.

This comment in the EconLog thread, by RPLong, caught my eye:

Common sense is one of those fuzzy concepts that people invoke to buttress their arguments without providing additional facts or reasoning. I consider appeals to common sense to be a lot like saying “very, very, very…” That is, appealing to common sense provides more verbiage without providing any additional substance. It’s a waste of time. Unless we can actually show with facts and reasoning that our position is the more sensible, there is no use discussing that which appears most “commonly” to be sensible. If you have the more convincing position, then you can certainly demonstrate how much more convincing it is.

That’s surely the crux of the matter. It is one thing to say that “My opinion about the wrongness or rightness about abortion or the proper teaching of kids is just,  you know, common sense.” But as soon as you start to break down the issues, look a premises, unacknowledged philosophical/other assumptions, it gets much more complicated. In some cases, an appeal to “common sense” is just an argument from authority.



36 comments to Common sense – not always obvious or common

  • Tom Hunt

    I personally think of “common sense” as something like “appeal to the self-evident”. If all parties to the discussion can agree on what’s “common sense”, then it’s fine; that’s just establishing your premises. However, if some don’t, then it’s not actually a defense–if anything, it’s an analysis of your own reasons for believing it.

  • Laird

    And an argument from an unidentified and highly suspect authority at that.

  • Kevin B

    Well yes, it is an argument from authority, but if an precept is common sense, i.e. the ‘sense’ of a large majority of the people, then to countermand it should require some pretty convincing evidence rather than some fashionable assertions backed up with a lot of noisy rhetoric.

    Too often, especially in the area of ‘social science’, what has ‘stood the test of time’, to dig up a hackneyed phrase, has been casually thrown away to be replaced with ill-thought out nonsense backed by some pretty bizarre theories.

  • “Conventional wisdom” is usually wrong, too.

  • Not to disagree with Jonathan on the substance of his point, but what Kevin B. said. I think this echoes that recent discussion about radicalism etc. I think that it may have to do with something as basic as temperament (and age): some people tend towards “revolutionarism”, while others tend towards conservatism – and it often does not really matter to them what is it that they revolt against, or what is it that they are trying to conserve. And why.

    ‘Common sense’ is just another word for a status quo. I think that most people in most places are not entirely happy with the status quo in their neck of the woods, and everyone thinks that there’s room for improvement. It’s just that there’s usually a great degree of disagreement as to what should be changed and how.

  • Niall

    I believe it was Einstein who defined common sense as “the collection of prejudicies acquired by age eighteen”. A little bit harsh, perhaps, but a useful reminder that one man’s self-evident truth is another man’s complacent conventional wisdom.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This sentence from RPLong’s comment is crucial:
    “Unless we can actually show with facts and reasoning that our position is the more sensible, there is no use discussing that which appears most “commonly” to be sensible.”

    The plain fact is, in ethics we cannot show with facts and reasoning ALONE that some values are more reasonable than others. That’s the is/ought dichotomy. (Hopefully Paul Marks will forgive me for bringing in Hume.)

    So we need moral intuitions. Alternatively, we might appeal to authority: to the Bible or Koran or Analects. (Locke appeals to the Bible quite liberally, pardon the pun.) I don’t see any other alternative, but perhaps it’s a defect of my imagination.

    Whether we appeal to moral intuitions or to sacred texts, we can find agreement only with those people who share, respectively, our moral intuitions or our belief in sacred texts. That’s a problem, but one we cannot hope to avoid.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, it’s only common sense that if you take that hot pan out of the oven without a potholder, you’re going to get burnt. The quickest way I know to settle the argument is to let you go ahead and try it.

    Or we can settle down with a nice cuppa and have a long, reasoned discussion (or argument, but only in the sense of “logical argument” as opposed to quarrel) about it.

    On the other hand, it’s only common sense that you don’t abort a fetus unless it seems necessary in order to save the mother’s life or human functionality.

    As with everything, context (and worldview) are all.

  • RRS

    It will be interesting to see how Paul Marks brings Thos. Reid into this.

  • RRS

    Incidentally, over at Cato Unbound Tom Palmer’s response to Huemer’s book (he goes beyond just the Huemer essay there)takes us back to Nozick – good piece, well written.

  • RRS

    Let me lay something very simplistic before this noble gathering of thinkers:

    Individuals have an internal sense of right and wrong, of things they ought to do and ought not to do; of how they want to be perceived and how they want to deserve particular perceptions.

    Individuals have an internal sense of obligation, based upon that sense of ought and ought not, that mediates human actions and interactions by individuals.

    In any social grouping individuals can find varying degrees of commonality in the senses experienced by each.

    When those individual senses are recognized, accepted and performed with sufficient commonality in a social grouping they become the basis for morals and morality in that social grouping.

    How those individual senses come to be formed and how the commonalities occur are matters of separate investigation. But both are known to exist.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very well put, RRS. :>))

    It applies in other contexts than the ethical or the moral or even the philosophical or scientific, of course–it applies in daily life as well, as with the hot pan in the oven.

    Speaking of the latter, a good deal of “common sense” and “conventional wisdom” is in fact correct–we just don’t notice it because we’re used to it. “Don’t ever run the knife toward yourself,” for instance.

    I speak as one who has often said that “common sense” is a weak reed indeed….

    The question of how these senses of what is and what is not, what is right or correct and what is not, what is right and what is wrong (three different contexts there: the metaphysical, the scientific, the ethical; and, in daily “practical life,” all three phraseologies apply)–how these senses come to be and develop as they do is, as you say, another question. Of great interest.

    It would be enlightening to know what percentage of the time a belief sufficiently widespread to be considered “common sense” is actually correct. (Restricted to the context of daily living.) But even that, which seems straightforward, is probably an imponderable, in view of the fact that what even a single individual believes is “common sense” is apt to change as he goes along….

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – no I will not forgive you for bringing in David Hume. Especially as Davy says “reason is, AND OUGHT TO BE [my capital letters], the slave of the passions”.

    Perhaps that is not techically a violation of his “you can not get an ought for an is” point – but it does clearly show that we are dealing with an arsehole (to use a technical term). Of course he could have been game-playing, but I do not agree that things like the existence of the human mind (the “I” – the agent), the existence of the material universe, and the existence of right and wrong are things that should be treated as amusing games. Although it might have been amusing to have killed Hume and as he lay bleeding to death – bend over and whisper in his ear “I am just following my passions, you son-of-a-bitch”. However, this would (of course) have been wrong.

    As for “Common Sense” – D. Stewart opposed his friend Thomas Reid’s use of the term (I think D. liked “good sense” better). However, I prefer “Common” Sense as it makes the point that the average person (if they are prepared to make the effort) can clear their mind and see things clearly.

    “The Scottish Philosphy” (by James McCosh 1877) is good on the various Common Sense thinkers – although, as the name suggests, it does not really make the connection with previous, non Scots, thinkers (neither the Aristotelians – or Ralph Cudworth).

    In the 20th century neither Sir William David Ross or Harold Prichard (who I find more interesting) should be ignored.

    And nor should our modern friends be forgotten – such as Antony Flew, who spent his life trying to make thinking clear (and helping average people clear their thoughts).

    As I hope is obvious, I do not really think these are matters that can be dealt with by comments on a thread (although I applaud RRS and others who try to do so).

    These things can be considered – but by long reading and thought. That is why I have given a few names (places to start).

    Perhaps other people, in the future, will find better ways to clear the mind. To understand.

  • roland

    ‘self evident truths’ and ‘common sense’ are the watchwords of the reactionary and stupid.

    They will usually make some dumb comparison between say, the ‘common knowledge’ that playing with fire will burn you and the ‘self evident truth’ of a particular moral position, as if morality was a series of objective truths much like those found in the laws of physics.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I have just finished listening to Isaiah Berlin’s last lecture in a series of lectures he gave called “The Roots of Romanticism.” This final talk is presented in seven segments at the movie place, which might be abbreviated “YT.” Naturally it’s best to listen to all seven parts (around 60 minutes total, I think), but I think that Part 7 especially is pertinent to our discussion. (roland, you may find the comment about common sense interesting.) If you haven’t heard this series, it will be easier to assimilate the last part if you at least listen to Part 6. And for those who haven’t heard the lecture, I thought it was quite interesting and rather less shallow than what we get these days from some of our soi-disant “thinkers.”

    To begin at the very beginning, here is Part 1/7:

    Part 6/7:

    Part 7:


  • Richard Thomas

    I recall a saying about if one sees a sentence that begins with “Clearly”, it means that what follows was definitely pulled from the darkest nether-regions by the author.

    Unfortunately, not only is “common sense” a lazy debating technique, it is also amazingly effective drawing the opponent into a technical discussion and away from being able to make their point. It is especially effective in modern media where time tends to be at a premium.

  • Julie near Chicago


    On “Clearly”: I think your translation is incorrect. We quickly learned that a statement beginning “Clearly” is one with a proof sufficiently long and abstruse that giving it would take up the entire rest of the quarter.

    Cheers! 🙂

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: your hostility to reason being the slave of the passions should waver when you consider that we all have a strong passion for following our moral intuitions. It is only by overcoming this passion that we can do evil.
    Let me be clear: if, or rather when, reason is not the slave of this particular passion, there is nothing preventing us from doing evil; apart from, you know, fear of retribution.

  • Rich Rostrom

    It was I believe C. S. Lewis who wrote something like this:

    “Suppose one finds a gate across a road, with no apparent reason for it being there. The reaction of the modern progressive would be to tear it down at once as an obstruction to traffic.

    But the thoughtful conservative would say: no one would have built this gate without a reason. We should find out why it was built, and see if that reason is still good. If so, we should preserve the gate. Only if we are sure that reason is no longer good should we remove it. Otherwise, we are likely to find out what that reason was in a very unfortunate way.”

    The doctrines and ideas which come under the heading of “common sense” may be equated at one remove to the gate in the road. These doctrines and ideas didn’t arise spontaneously out of thin air. Before we reject them, we should find out where they came from.

    It is true that excessive reverence for “common sense” has cost a great deal through history. But the facile rejection of “common sense” in the last 100 years has cost an enormous amount.

  • One man’s common sense is another’s utter stupidity.

  • Greg

    Great thread. Rich is spot on. My quick thoughts on this: common sense is what’s left after experience has shown you what doesn’t work. I also like the description that it’s what my Grandmother knew to be true. Rich notes the cost of rejecting “common sense” in the past 100 years (my grandmothers were born about 110 years ago); I agree. Hard to say how much of Grandma’s common sense was the result of reason, meditation, and experience, but my guess is that she did these things without focusing on them as such (as in “I’m going to sit down and reason this out now”). She inherited some gates (across roads) and passed them on…probably with modifications.

  • Richard Thomas

    I think we should discriminate between regular common sense, which is typically the accumulated stratification of hundreds of years of, often quite painful, learning experiences and political common sense which typically is shorthand for “because I say so, you simpleton”

  • RRS

    In the Online Library of Liberty Over@libertyfund.org, one can find the name of Thomas Reid (under “T” in the list of 18th-century authors) and be taken to a 1915 compendium of commentary On Common Sense philosophy.

    As alluded to previously, there are “senses” which humans have in common. Most of these relate to the capacity for perception and it is to the matters of perception (how it is physically conducted and then mentally interpreted) that certain philosophers have directed their thinking.

    The term “sense” is also applied beyond matters of the sensory order.

  • Yes, what Rich said does make a lot of, well, sense. Still Greg, you obviously have not met my grandmother:-)

    Also, ‘what works’ for whom, exactly? I don’t want to hyprebolize, but institutions such as slavery did work for most people.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I too find Rich’s observation eminently sensible. To me, conservatism is simply a matter of trying not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    (Although I could name a few babies whom I think should have been drowned at birth. –Not to name names, of course.)

    . . .

    “Slavery did work for most people.” Food for thought. Who is included in the “most”? Today’s off-the-cuff answer would be, “Certainly not for the slaves!”

    Which leads me to wonder whether the people of the USSR were, strictly speaking, slaves. If so, I have to say that slavery did not work for the vast majority of those folks–although the ones who survived did (obviously) find a way to survive as slaves.

    Alisa, I would be particularly interested in your thoughts on that, unless of course you’d prefer to keep them to yourself. 🙂

  • “Certainly not for the slaves!”

    Certainly not. But then, there are always some people who are unhappy with the status quo, aren’t there?:-|

    To your question, I think it is a matter of degree. I think of absolute freedom and absolute slavery as two extremes at the ends of one very long scale. These two extremes do not – and probably cannot – exist in reality, which is in continuous flux along that scale. I remember this discussion as the most relevant to this issue.

  • Hey, I see you were on it, too – we all were about 6 years younger back then…Time flies:-)

  • veryretired

    Very interesting, and related, article at the Weekly Standard about the ongoing fuss over a new book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. It has upset quite a few people because of its use of commen sense as a stanard.

  • veryretired

    And I’m sure common sense would tell one who was listening that if there’s a preview option, then use it to correct the mistake of leaving one “d” out of the word standard. Doh!

  • Julie near Chicago

    By golly, Alisa–I remember that discussion. A good one! I regret to report that the situation vis-a-vis “Congress shall make no law” has deteriorated (!!!), as I’m sure you’ve gathered from various sources such as Samizdata and other troublemaking sites, your friends here, perhaps even the News.

    Thanks for pointing me to it in answer to my question; very helpful. :>)

  • Indeed, Julie. I’m afraid that things are going to get much worse still, before they get any better. Interesting times.

  • Last fall, a few days before Halloween and about a month after the publication of Mind and Cosmos, the controversial new book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, several of the world’s leading philosophers gathered with a group of cutting-edge scientists in the conference room of a charming inn in the Berkshires. They faced one another around a big table set with pitchers of iced water and trays of hard candies wrapped in cellophane and talked and talked, as public intellectuals do. PowerPoint was often brought into play.

    Oh no, not PowerPoint! They must have been dead serious.

  • another_anon

    R. Rostrom – it was G. K. Chesterson:


    I don’t know if Smitebot allows more than one link, so see the next post.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri if you had said “moral sense”….. – and one can indeed have a rightious passion for the good.

    But this is a million miles away from David Hume.

    Who has about as much passion for the right (I will not get into the subtle distinctions between the right and the good) – as Thomas Hobbes did.

  • Paul Marks

    “self evident truths – are the mark of the reactionary and the stupid”.

    Such as all the Founding Fathers – following Thomas Reid and other Common Sense philosphers.

    Actually many of the most basic and important truths are self evident.

    For example – A is A.

    “So what?”

    Try living your life on the principle that A is NOT A.