I Don’t Use “Common Sense” and Neither Should You

I Don’t Use “Common Sense” and Neither Should You

I do my best to avoid “common sense”, and I believe that you would be better off if you avoided it.

What am I trying to say here? Am I saying that ignorance is bliss or something along those lines?

I’m not saying that at all. In fact, I am trying to say the exact opposite. I am advocating against ignorance. But the problem as I see it is that too many people appeal to common sense as an argument to continue their own ignorance, or to avoid understanding the very rational actions and words of others. I’m saying that the term “common sense” often is used to justify a too-common lack of sense. Too often, the terminology has become meaningless or misleading. That’s why I used quotation marks around “common sense” in the title of this essay. It is the language of claiming “common sense” that I try to avoid.

Think of the numbers. Very few people consider their own thoughts and ideas to be in opposition to common sense. Most people are proud to be blessed with common sense. Many of these same people spend a lot of time decrying the lack of common sense in others. But who are these “others” who lack common sense?

The numbers suggest that those are people who, more likely than not, are just as comfortable with their own gift of common sense as you are. They think the same thing about themselves and common sense as you feel about yourself and common sense. They might even think that you lack common sense as much as you think they lack common sense. They might even spend as much time decrying the lack of common sense in others as you do.

So, does this mean that you are right and they are wrong? Possibly, but the numbers suggest that it is just as likely that they are right and you are wrong. What does it mean, then?
Often, it means that people feel instinctively that a certain thing is right. That is what they mean by “common sense”. They don’t have to study an issue, and perhaps they cannot pinpoint any details that will back up this instinctive knowledge, but they instinctively know the answer. After all, they have common sense and anybody who disagrees or tries to complicate the issue is obviously somebody who lacks common sense.

But it is also very possible that the person you decry as lacking in common sense – the one who sees things differently or tries to complicate something that is simple – happens to know something that you don’t. Perhaps reality is actually different from what it appears to be on the surface. Perhaps things are more complicated than what your “common sense” will allow you to believe. Perhaps you claim lack of common sense in others in order to justify something that you yourself do not understand. Perhaps you are using your own common sense as an excuse to be a lazy thinker and not think through an issue. Perhaps – possible but not necessary to this discussion – your own common sense requires you to assign some kind of sinister motive in those who disagree with you.

But you might say, “This doesn’t apply to me. It applies to others, but not me. I have common sense, and others only think that they do.” And you just might be right about that. However, even if you are right, there is no denying that others are using the same language to say the same thing about you. If they think they have common sense, but they don’t, they are still thinking in terms of the same language of “I have common sense and you don’t.” It’s in the numbers that this occurs on a regular basis.

So what do you gain by decrying the lack of common sense in others? You gain nothing, really, because the term “common sense” doesn’t mean anything at all under these circumstances. Everybody claims to have it, and everybody claims that others don’t have it. Perhaps in your own mind it helps to justify what you feel about others. But other than within your own mind, why bother to even say such a thing in public? If you use the same language that somebody else is using in order to make the exact opposite point, what is the logic of using that language?

I prefer to use language such as “rationality” and “logic” in place of “common sense”. Does this distinction in language make me more rational or logical than you? Of course it doesn’t. But it does do one thing. It opens up the possibility of a reasonable debate over something that I consider to be rational. If somebody disagrees with what I consider to be rational, then they can use their own rational arguments, and we can discuss the issue in a rational fashion. “This is my rationale for what I think is true.”

However, simply claiming that our positions are based on common sense is a method for cutting off discussion of issues that just might be misunderstood. “I am right because common sense says I am right.”

Appealing to common sense instead of rationality contributes to the dumbing-down of society. Some people go out of their way to justify their ignorance by claiming that their own “common sense” is better than somebody else’s research or formal education. They simply assume that a formal education in a given subject necessarily ignores real world experience – and they don’t need a formal education to make this determination. After all, common sense says so.

“Common sense” is being used just as often to justify ignorance as it is to justify rational thought. I think the rational thought process would be improved if we didn’t have the language of “common sense” to fall back on.

See on

Jerry Wyant