“Common Sense isn’t common.”

We’ve all heard this refrain. I hear it at my work every time someone does something we collectively deem idiotic. I’ve heard this said about people doing inane, silly things and heard this said about people who’ve died. Hell, I’ve said it. When someone does something stupid that we swear we’d never do, we think it even if we don’t say it.

It implies a strong judgment: I’d never do that, I know better, I understand the rules of our society because I belong. But is that really true?

What is Common Sense?

I’ve always hated when writers write “Webster’s Dictionary states that…” or “The Oxford English Dictionary defines…” I find it lazy. And yet, here I am, doing the very thing I hate. Wiktionary’s second definition of “common sense” is “Ordinary sensible understanding; one’s basic intelligence which allows for plain understanding and without which good decisions or judgments cannot be made. ” 1 I resorted to the dictionary definition because it feels particularly hard to put what we believe to be “common sense” into words; it’s something we think we intuitively know and don’t need to define or explain.

We all think we know what Common Sense is, but we can’t articulate it and we can’t articulate its meaning. We can’t articulate this because we don’t actually know what Common Sense is in any definable sense; it’s just something we feel. And that’s because what we call common sense is actually just a series of feelings based on our intuition and what we’ve learned about how to get along in the world. Common Sense is intuition, some of which is borne from experience and some of which is probably genetic. But it’s certainly not “right” or “good”; it just is.

That’s because “common sense” is not actually universal. We acknowledge as much when we say that “common sense isn’t common.” Common Sense is a code, nearly a moral code. Our own personal moral code. And moral codes are not universal. If moral codes were universal, we wouldn’t have many (or any) moral dilemmas. If you are an adherent of a religion, you probably disagree with that statement. But even within your religion, there are moral dilemmas because your moral code is vague and general and cannot be applied to every specific situation because…well, because it’s not universal, is it? Common Sense is much the same.

Common Sense feels like it is a universal moral code because we share much of it with our family, our friends and, in the past, our community. It still wasn’t completely universal in the past – inevitably somebody violated the rules of common sense – but it likely felt much more universal, much more common, when we lived in rather homogeneous communities. In a city such as Toronto where I live, one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, it feels like it isn’t very common anymore. It feels like the rules we all used to live by aren’t recognized by everyone. And there need not be a racial or ethnic dimension to this: there is also an ageism angle, as well as what we might call a “sane versus insane” angle (i.e. the people who don’t have common sense are crazy, or were raised poorly, even if they look and sound like us).

And so, in our modern, mixed society we like to say “Common Sense isn’t common” because it allows us to feel superior, to judge without guilt, to not think about our own judgments.

To the extent that our Common Sense allows us to function well in our surroundings, it is useful. But to the extent that it allows us to pretend we are different and better than The Other, is merely bigotry in another form.


The Problem with Common Sense

Common Sense is not common. It’s not common because it represents the particular way we believe we figure out the world. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we would see that even we don’t actually live up to this ideal moral code. How often do we judge others for not having common sense but let ourselves off the hook for doing something nonsensical? My answer is “All the time.”

Appealing to Common Sense – a thing that doesn’t really exist – as a way of judging others’ actions is merely a way of asserting our own superiority, asserting that we know the rules better than someone else. That is, we belong, they don’t. This is a variation of the Just World Fallacy, the belief in a fair world, which this site is dedicated to exploring.

The Just World Fallacy theory holds that the vast majority of us secretly believe the world is fair, even though most of us would admit that we know intellectually that the world is not fair at all. In a Just World, people get what they deserve. And that’s where Common Sense comes in. If Common Sense is a universal moral compass, then those who do not have common sense are violating the rules of the universe. To put it another way: they get what’s coming to them. They deserve it. In this light, Common Sense is just another way to blame people for things out of their control. At its worst, a belief in Common Sense allows us to blame victims without guilt. We do this because our belief in Common Sense lets us believe the victims should have known better; that the victims should have had or exercised Common Sense. Had they done so, they would not have suffered.

“Common Sense isn’t common” is really just a way of saying “I follow the rules, you don’t. You deserve what you get.” That’s all it is. It’s a way of making us feel superior to those that suffer, those who suffer anything from the smallest indignity to actual death. And it’s the way we can exorcise our guilt, a way we can feel that we’re not complicit.

  1. The first definition is an older one: “An internal sense, formerly believed to be the sense by which information from the other five senses is understood and interpreted,” which is certainly not how we think of “common sense” today.
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