Beware of Common Sense

Feb 27, 2014

Beware of Common Sense

As the 2014 political campaign kicks into high gear, politicians are beginning to feature a powerful rhetorical tool:  the appeal to common sense.  President Obama recently gave a fifteen-minute policy speech in which he invoked the phrase five times.  Last Monday, Senate candidate Steve Daines published an op-ed in Montana newspapers in which he used the phrase four times in seven hundred words.  But while the appeal to common sense seems to suggest that we all ought to agree on whatever is proposed, in the political context, it ought to spur us to a much different task.

The idea of common sense has a long history with multiple meanings.  Related concepts in the ancient Roman world equated it with pre-rational beliefs and sensibilities that cannot or need not be questioned.  In contrast, some Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries described it as something like one’s rationality or practical judgment.  Today, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines common sense as “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”

Even this small sampling of definitions raises important questions.  Is common sense a capacity of good judgment?  Or is it composed of substantive beliefs about how to live?  In either case, does it exist universally in human beings?  Does common sense refer to basic assumptions that are beyond rational criticism, or does it require such criticism? 

Whether you think of common sense as a capacity or as a set of beliefs or sensibilities, I think we should be suspicious of any claims about its universality.  Even philosophers who thought of common sense as a capacity born by all recognized that not everyone could exercise it well.  Thus, people may appeal to what they think is common sense, but it may be poor judgment instead.

When common sense includes substantive claims about the way the world is or ought to be, there is even more reason for suspicion.  Albert Einstein once called common sense, “the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen”; if he’s even close to right, those prejudices will vary greatly among cultures.  What may seem like common sense to most Canadians—for example, that the government ought to ensure access to health care–is debated in our country.

Appeals to common sense in the political realm have a history dating to the beginning of our nation.  Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet called, simply, Common Sense appealed to all classes of people in America, not just to the elite, on behalf of independence for the colonies.  But note that the appeal took the form of an argument, not merely an assertion.

In contemporary political speech, appeals to common sense are among the most dubious, being almost dismissive of argument.  Instead, they serve other purposes.  They are a trademark of populism on the political right and left.  Politicians invoking common sense are trying to show that they stand not with the elite, of whom we should be suspicious, but rather with the common person, who, it is assumed, possesses common sense in greater measure than politicians—with the exception, of course, of the one who is talking to them.

In addition, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues, politicians love appealing to common-sense because it makes their solutions seem simple and obvious to anyone not clouded by political ideology.  For example, Congressman Daines puts forward what he calls common-sense forest management reforms, namely, nationally mandated logging quotas.  It sounds simple enough, but it actually runs afoul of basic wildlife and sustainable forest management principles and current land use agreements.  What he terms “senseless barriers” to coal development may in fact be reasonable health or climate protections that sound a lot like common sense to others.  Far from overcoming political ideology, common-sense is rather used as its cover.

At best, appeals to common-sense in politics may help us get beyond entrenched political battles.  More typically, though, they are condescending and reductionistic.  They suggest that the answers to complex problems are simple.  They are dismissive of argument and analysis.  They arrogantly assume that the possessor of common sense has better judgment than any so-called expert.

When the appeal to common sense is meant to convince us that policy proposals are beyond justification or don’t need to acknowledge the complexity of facts or competing values, that’s precisely the time that we should suspect that something other than policy solutions is on the agenda.  At the very least, we need to examine the proposal more closely, rather than assume that a simple perception of the solution will do.

Common sense may well be part of how we need to face the more straightforward aspects of life.  But beware the politician who claims to have it when the problems are anything but simple.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.