This Sunday we are talking about Common Sense. Let's hope there won't be
any more football games.
The essay I wrote is rather on the short side and not very detailed, but
it covers more or less my ideas. This is / was a big subject in the past
so there is a lot of literature on the subject. There was even a
Scottish school of Common Sense (school as in philosophical movement).
Of course, apologies for any typos and silly mistakes.
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Whilst I get on with the essay , you might wish to consider this
question: can we give a common sense definition of common sense?
John Locke* used the term common sense to describe a situation where we
accept an innate moral principle, for example, the categorical
imperative and then to question its validity. If we did accept such a
principle it would be contrary to common sense if we then asked why
should we accept this principle. It is not common sense to believe of a
thing that "... the same thing to be and not to be." Thomas
Reid(1710-1796), who was born soon after Locke (1632-1704) died was a
great advocate of common sense and was one of the influential Scottish
Common Sense movement in philosophy. ** Reid believed that our common
sense structures were reflected in our ordinary language.
There is a brief article on common sense in Wikipedia*** which gives a
very rough and ready history of the term common sense. In a way, the
evolution of common sense must have reached a plateau with the
attributed opinion of Einstein who it is claimed said: "Common sense is
the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."
In spite of the prominence and fall of the term common sense today we
can safely say that common sense is not a methodology to equal for
example the scientific method. Maybe it is true that our language does
reflect what we take as being obvious, but there are many obvious things
that not factually correct.
However, there is no doubt that we still use the term common sense in
our daily life. I searched the term in Google news and randomly picked
three stories with the term common sense in them. (see ref below for
1) The Alzheimer's Society says: "It defies common sense that people
with the disease have to get worse before they are offered drugs."
2) .......Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen tells us that
investment in human rights results in major returns in social cohesion
and economic participation. Of course, we don't need studies to tell us
this, just common sense.
3) Americans could use about 10-15% less gasoline just by adopting these
common sense measures.
One of the most important aspect of these stories is the capacity to
link common sense with value judgements. Although we can identify a
moral implication or angle in all three stories, can we conclude that
all common sense judgements are also moral judgements?
That patients ought to be treated immediately when their disease is
discovered is not just a common sense judgement but also a moral
judgment. It is reasonable to assume that someone with a disease that
can be treated ought to be treated.
But clinical judgements might not always follow our common sense
judgments. And if we accept this premise we also have to accept that
common sense not moral judgments. They might sometimes be, but they are
not necessarily always moral judgements. If common sense judgements were
also moral judgments we would be in the same position as the physician
making a clinical judgment. Since most of us are not physicians but we
are all moral agents. Which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd as
Locke might have said.
The example of Americans saving on their gasoline is more a case of
prescription rather than moral judgment. An argument based on saving the
planet or humanity might not be as persuasive as saving a few bucks. In
fact I do not see these type of common sense moral judgement. Polluting
our environment with poisons and toxins is not a moral issue but a
matter of simple cause and effect. Which is why I say that this form of
common sense is more prescriptive than anything else. If "x" causes "y"
and we want "y" then we better make sure that "x" takes place.
Even prescriptive judgements are not necessarily reasonable judgements.
If we want to be generous we can interpret the 10-15% savings as fuel
that is not polluting the environment plus the bonus of having 10-15%
more fuel in the future. But if we are conspiracy theorists we might
interpret the 10-15% saving as gasoline that will be made available in
the future at a higher price. Especially when we consider that petroleum
stocks are not infinite.
Thus common sense may or may not be moral judgments or prescriptive
judgements. However, the three examples have another factor in common.
The three of them appeal to our emotional feeling. The use of "just" and
"defies" are supposed to make us feel that there is no time to waste or
that we should spring into action now: there is nothing more we can need
before we act.
And it is this need to act that makes these common sense judgments as
emotional judgements. If we were indifferent we would not have any
reason to act, but emotions are the driving force to action. Maybe too
driving for the likes or comfort of some people. For example in the
statement by Alzheimer's Society we can just about feel the anger if not
ire of the speaker. And the second reference which is from the Herald
Sun, Australia, we can feel the frustration of the writer at the
injustice experienced by the poor.
Maybe the emotional content is the factor which Reid linked common sense
with language. It is not that we have common sense in common but maybe
we have emotions in common. Even if emotions are present in common
sense, does this make common sense judgements also universal judgements?
Given, of course, that we all have emotions.
Let us consider a situation which might involve all the three elements
of common sense: moral, prescriptive and emotional. A situation that
might involve all three is our relationship with friends and colleagues.
Our relationship with our colleagues involves us in all three elements
by virtue of our rights and duties at work. The emotional bonding or
relationship we have with friends, in a way, imposes on us a sort of
moral and prescriptive duty. For example, we want to help our friends.
So how should we deal with a colleague who is interfering with our work
because of their behaviour? Or what are we to do if a friend of ours is
behaving in an unfriendly way? Ignoring both people might be a way out.
Hoping that in time they will realise the error of their ways and start
behaving in a "normal" fashion. Of course doing nothing as a strategy is
different from being indifferent to the situation. Indifference as I
indicated earlier is the absence of emotion consequence or feeling. But
doing nothing might send the wrong signal, maybe our doing nothing might
be interpreted as everything is fine.
But it is also true that being indifferent towards a colleague or a
friend is not the normal thing to do. When we have a problem with a
friend or colleague we do feel we ought to do something about it. We
feel we ought to tell our colleague or our boss about our colleague's
behaviour. Or we feel we ought to tell our friend or our other friends
about our friend's behaviour. Thus not only does the emotional factor
seems to give common sense a universal element but also an impetuous to
act morally or express prescriptive opinions.
However, indifference is a challenge to the emotional element in common
sense thus making it difficult for emotions to be the universal element
of common sense. It seems that although common sense has a number of
virtues none seem to be either innate nor universally binding. The fact
that each of us can interpret a situation differently denies common
sense a universal element. Someone might feel enraged at a colleague,
but some others might feel indifferent.
There might of course be other reasons why common sense is not
necessarily universal. Common sense might not be a methodology to
process sense perceptions or sense data as Aristotle seemed to have
believed (see Wikipedia), but a function of our already existing
epistemic state. Thus we do not processes events from the world outside
us and come to some sort of conclusion as to what to do; for example
drive slower to save gas, administer the drug to fight the disease. But
we incorporate these new sense data into our exiting knowledge and
information and process this new state of knowledge to its logical or
We do not look at the patient and say it is common sense to give them
the drug because that is what is morally right to do. On the contrary,
it is common sense for the Society to say that these patients ought to
get the drug early because they know very well why patients are not
getting the drug early. It was a decision by the UK drugs advisory body
(NICE) who claimed that the relevant drugs are only cost effective in
patients with advanced disease. Fortunately for patients with Alzheimer
disease the Court of Appeal disagreed with NICE and now it is hoped the
drug will be available to all those who need it. We can safely assume
that both the Society and the Court of Appeal, by implication, did not
reach this common sense position on a whim or an emotional reaction.
Maybe something to be common sense because we know it is a relevant
conclusion based on knowledge or experience. This might explain why
common sense judgements are not as common as other judgements. When we
say something is common sense it is because we reach that conclusion
after a rational process. The dilemma is that those who lack the
necessary background knowledge might not be able to reach the same
conclusion as those who do. And this is for me the weakness of common
sense. Common sense judgements have very little to do with sense
perception, morality or even emotion, but have more connection with our
epistemic state of mind. More connection with the knowledge, experience
and information we have. This would immediately exclude common sense
form being an objective process, function or methodology.
So can we give a common sense definition of common sense? I think I have
just done that. But your common sense might be better than my common sense.
*The Project Gutenberg EBook of An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding,
Volume I., by John Locke
** Yaffe, Gideon, "Thomas Reid", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
*** Wikipedia, common sense
1) Dear Miriam - Health topic of the day: Take the fight to Alzheimer's
Last year the government's drugs advisory body Nice decided they aren't
cost-effective for early-stage sufferers and should only be available on
the NHS for advanced cases.
But last week the Court of Appeal ruled the process Nice used to make
that decision was unfair - raising hopes the drugs may soon be made
available for all sufferers.
The Alzheimer's Society says: "It defies common sense that people with
the disease have to get worse before they are offered drugs."
Patients can buy them privately, but this costs at least £100 month.
2) Listen to home truths
Article from: Herald Sun (Australia)
Philip Lynch, May 05, 2008 12:00am
In the area of income support, social security payments remain pegged
below the Henderson Poverty Line.
The cost of inaction in these areas far exceeds the cost of action.
The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen tells us that
investment in human rights results in major returns in social cohesion
and economic participation.
Of course, we don't need studies to tell us this, just common sense.
The UN committee commences its review of Australia in just a few weeks.
3) The Oil & Gas Journal,
Bingaman lashes at Bush for oil, gas supply inaction
Nick Snow, Washington Editor
WASHINGTON, DC, May 5
Copyright © 2008: PennWell Corporation, Tulsa, OK; All Rights Reserved.
Consumers also need to understand that they increase their motor
vehicle's fuel efficiency by about 7.5% for every 5-mph reduction in
speed, by about 4% when the vehicle's tires are properly inflated, and
by about 2% with regular maintenance, according to Bingaman.
"Americans could use about 10-15% less gasoline just by adopting these
common sense measures. But they won't ever do so unless there is a lot
of publicity that makes clear that they can save the equivalent of
50¢/gal by taking these simple steps," he said.
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Common sense