Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oh, come on, it's only common sense!

I hate the phrase, "common sense." I do my best to avoid using that often-twisted phrase as much as possible, in my writing, when I'm talking to people, and anywhere in between.

Why? In my observation, there are few phrases more mis-used in discussions and debates than the phrase "common sense."

I know there are some things that everyone could agree falls under the description of common sense. Don't step in front of a moving car on the freeway or else you'll get hurt or killed. If you stick a fork into an electrical socket you will probably get shocked. Don't drink gasoline or you'll get sick.

These nuggets of "common sense" have some actual logic on their side that a person reasonably knowledgeable of the forces involved can reason out. . Someone that has never seen anyone step in front of a moving car before (i.e. has never seen YouTube or Break.com) could logically reason that if something big and heavy is going very fast, it's not going to bode well for my physical health to step in front of it. If those two holes in that receptacle deliver power capable of running powerful electrical motors, then trying to make that power run through my body might not be very comfortable. Gasoline smells terrible and makes my nose and eyes burn, it might not be very compatible with my tummy (of course, that also describes my sister-in-law's cooking but it actually didn't poison me).

The problem comes in where people try to use the phrase to lend some non-logical or half-assed credibility to their side of an argument. It also (whether intentionally or not) discredits their opponent as NOT having it, because after all, who but a fool would disagree with what is common sense?

If both sides claim that their view is just common sense, one of them has to be wrong, right?

No, because "common sense" is not an absolute fact. Common sense depends entirely on the knowledge, experience, and context of the individual.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "Common sense is merely the deposit of prejudice laid down in the human mind before the age of 18." Although the exact age is up for debate, it seems true that what someone decides is common sense is heavily dependent on their beliefs and experiences by the time they reach maturity.

I cringe when gun control advocates suggest that we need "common sense gun regulations," because what they think is logic backing their suggestions is actually based heavily in prejudice and bias from their own experiences and formed beliefs. Perhaps that bias against guns wasn't formed at the point where the person entered maturity. I believe if someone becomes a victim of firearm-related violent crime as an adult, and they didn't have a healthy respect for individual rights and/or the right to keep and bear arms when they reached adulthood, then that view of people's rights combined with their experience (being a victim of "gun violence") is going to weigh heavily on their decision to support gun control at the expense of others' liberty.

I could itemize different laws that the gun control advocates suggest are "common sense," but it's really unnecessary - All gun control rules and laws have these facts in common:

  • They prohibit free responsible exercise of the right to keep and bear arms, either to some people, or to all.
  • They do nothing to actually STOP violent criminals from obtaining firearms illegally and abusing the right to keep and bear arms by harming others
  • Almost all the different gun control laws proposed have already been tried somewhere in the world with no proven significant or consistent decrease in violent firearm-related crime.

Just because someone claims something in common sense doesn't make it right, doesn't make it logical, and doesn't make it morally superior somehow.

I'm sure that for many people in this country's history that it was only "common sense" at the time that blacks should not drink from the same water fountains or use the same facilities as whites.

For some, it was common sense that the Jews were the cause of Germany's problems and had to be eliminated.

It was once common sense to practice bloodletting a person when they were ill to "purge the patient of bad humors."

I'm sure that for Vizzini, it was only common sense that you never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

So I refuse to use the phrase. I will argue that something is logical, or that it's reasonable, and I try to always make sure I have facts to back up my statements. I have some opinions, too, but I build those based on as much information I can find and try to make sure my beliefs don't contradict the facts.

Frankly, when the person's belief is limited by bias instead of considering all the facts and the truth, "common sense," really isn't.



  1. I like using the gun controller's terms. Today I used both "Common Sense" and "Loophole" in one post.


  2. @FatWhiteMan,

    Good post! Perhaps I've been too hasty condemning those phrases... Perhaps we should use it against them instead?

    It does just show how "common sense" is relative to the belief of the user. "Loophole" is still a phrase I'm working on understanding.



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