Why is common sense so uncommon?
"Oh but that's just common sense!" If you've heard this phrase floating around, it is very likely that it's just the phrase that is common, not common sense itself! That brings us to the question of why common sense is such an uncommon virtue. Was it supposed to be an irony in the first place? Is it a doctrined fallacy? Or has common sense become so redundant with times that it's become uncommon? Let's take a look at what is common sense and why it is not common.
What is common sense?
Now there's a whole range of discourse on what is common sense. From Thomas Paine, John Locke, Aristotle to Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, a whole bunch of theologians, philosophers and social scientists have propounded their thoughts on what is common sense and why it elusively remains uncommon. During the French Revolution, Voltaire said that common sense is the most uncommon of all and humankind has remained perplexed ever since.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines Common sense as "the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way" The Merriam-Webster defines it as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. Forget the definitions, here a few common features of common sense that you'll be able to easily relate to.
- Common sense stems from experiences, actions, consequences that are commonly observed
- Common sense is expected to help human beings to reach reasonably sound conclusions
- Common sense is usually derived from mistakes made by others
- Basic common sense statements are usually made to cater to the general safety and security of humankind for example, you cannot fly off a tower's terrace nor you walk out of a train in motion, well at least not yet
If common sense is supposedly so commonplace, people wouldn't be doing obviously things like committing robberies, hurting others, committing suicides, smoking cigarettes or spending more money than what they can earn right? So how did we end up saying so casually that common sense is becoming uncommon in the first place? Let's find out.
Why is common sense so uncommon?
Think again before coming to the conclusion that common sense is uncommon. Apart from a few very basic universal laws, there is really nothing definitive that you can call common sense because these stimuli are filtered through a range of experiences. Is there really a pool of common universal experience that allows us to say that common sense is becoming uncommon? Let's see why common sense is uncommon, or is it?
1) Common sense means different things for different people
A major reason why common sense seems to be uncommon is because it doesn't mean the same for everybody. For example, when you make a statement such as "What a stupid thing she did! It was common sense for her to say no" Well, that can be a matter of great debate because you have benchmarked what common sense is according what you think. This definition of common sense comes from your personal, cultural and physical circumstances. Other people's common sense quotient cannot be scaled according to yours.
2) Common sense may mean defying universal rules
Let's observe a few universal sounding examples of common sense.
- Don't touch a hot iron
- Don't take food from strangers
- Don't wander out at night alone
The same examples can be termed as common sense turning uncommon, when they are put into a certain context.
Don't touch a hot iron - The phone rang while I was ironing my clothes. I wasn't paying attention and I put the iron to my cheek instead of the phone.
Don't take food from strangers – I met my best friend's brother's fiancée's younger sister at the bus stop. We got talking and she offered me a Lindt which I simply couldn't resist.
Don't wander out at night alone – The party ended at 2 am and my boyfriend was dropping me home. Suddenly he got a call from his parents to attend to some urgent work. I urged him to go and I came back home alone.
Now where has the common sense disappeared?
3) In modern times, we tend to overcomplicate things
Because a million more dimensions having entered modern life, there seems to be no singular answer to one question. There are confusing options, alternatives and unlimited choices for everything – whether it is looking for something on Google, shopping for a Levi's denim or thinking what to eat for dinner. Take for instance, this question which would otherwise demand a common sense answer.
"My tooth is aching. What should I do?"
Common sense answer: Go to the dentist
Uncommon sense answer: You're lying because you don't want to do to school tomorrow
4) A matter of assumption
This is a classic case of looking everywhere except under the light. Often, our common sense doesn't prevail because of our assumptions that don't allow us to use straightforward and logical thinking. Let's take a classic example. Detectives searching for a lost pin in the dark will never look under the lamppost where there is a patch of light, because they assume that if the pin was lying there, they would have already seen it. Hence uncommon sense prevails and they start looking just about everywhere else, except under the light.
5) Education supposedly steals common sense
Why is common sense so uncommon and on the decline? Many people believe that education is the cause. Education purges us of our natural instincts, ways of thinking and intuition. It plants seeds of artificial intelligence, whether it is thinking in the cause and effect style, thinking rationally after scanning options or spurring imaginative options to solve modern day problems. That's why, answers given by children are so full of wit and common sense. Often, adults are completely stunned by the sheer transparency of a child's reply and realize how they themselves would never have been able to come up with such an answer.
6) Being too close to the situation
It's easy to opine on someone else's situation and say "How did you not think of this? It was common sense, you idiot!" But it might be difficult to put the said common sense into practice when you yourself are in that situation. Being too close to a situation, emotion or a piece of work is often the victims of why common sense becomes uncommon.
7) Common sense speaks up too late
Common sense seems uncommon not because it is absent but because it appears often in hindsight. The lessons are learnt after the experience takes place and hence common sense follows suit. Here is a perfect quote by Philip Marlowe that summarizes this.
"Common sense always speaks too late. Common sense is the guy who tells you ought to have had your brakes relined last week before you smashed a front end this week. Common sense is the Monday morning quarterback who could have won the ball game if he had been on the team. But he never is. He's high up in the stands with a flask on his hip. Common sense is the little man in a grey suit who never makes a mistake in addition. But it's always somebody else's money he's adding up"
8) Depends on who is judging and evaluating common sense
If all the kids were asked who the evaluators of their common sense are, they'd jointly say 'parents'. Students would say 'teachers' and subordinates would say 'boss'. If you closely observe, the blanket statement of common sense being uncommon is made not on the basis of the actions taken, but to establish the hierarchy relationship. Consider a few examples.
"It's common sense to start a new answer on a new page" says the teacher to the student.
"The machinery needs to be sent for repair. You don't need to buy new tools. Use your common sense" says the factory owner to the employee.
"It's common sense to take enough money before your camping trip. No wonder you fell into trouble" says the parent to the child.
Whether there is any basis for these people to make such statements about not having common sense is a separate debate. In true sense, it's purely about maintaining a one-upmanship.
9) Personal and common social experience is limited
You might think common sense is uncommon these days because it doesn't fall in the realm of what you define as common sense. For someone else, they could be perfectly practicing common sense. Considering that common sense is an outcome and a blend of social experience and personal circumstances, it is, at the end of the day, limited. Why do we not have any common sense related to what to do on Mars or how to deal with ultra sonic radiation? That's because mankind is still not exposed to that sort of social experience. And hence, common or uncommon sense in that domain is left undefined.
10) People have realized that there may not be anything like a sense which is 'common'
As political intrigues in the world increase, as nations face a backlash with crumbling economic situations, as generation gaps and social landscapes change and as the waters of the Arctic start melting to eventually drown the world, people are slowly realizing that there is nothing like common sense, forget common sense being uncommon. The purpose with which common sense came into being can now be replaced by gathering empirical and statistical data on big issues like "Should the US go to war with Iraq?" And for smaller, trivial daily decision making, an open, objective, bias free mental makeup must be conceived. This would replace the need for common sense to exist.
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