John Riddell reckons he’s a sensible bloke. But then, doesn’t everybody?
A while ago I had to take my wife out for our anniversary, so while we were waiting for our burgers and fries I flicked through one of those out of date magazines they leave out. There was an article about keeping your kids safe while surfing the net. It made a few sensible suggestions and then it said something interesting. It said you should use “common sense”.
Do you have common sense? If you don’t, what use is this advice?
I know I have common sense. I’m sure you do too. As far as I can make out, everybody thinks they have common sense. Which is strange, because I know plenty of people who appear to have no common sense at all. Politicians for example.
Which means there is a bit of a problem. If everyone thinks they have common sense, and everyone thinks that some people don’t, then there must be people who think they know what common sense is when in fact they do not.
Surely that cannot be. Because if that is true, then even though I know I have common sense, there may be people who think I do not.
That’s a worry.
But what is common sense? Maybe I don’t have common sense. Could it be that what I think is common sense is different from what you think is common sense?
Does that make sense?
If you look at the words, “common sense”, the meaning seems simple enough. Common sense must be “sense” that is held in “common”. That’s a belief that is held by two or more people. The trouble with this is we use the phrase “common sense” to refer to something that is “obviously true”. But it might not be obvious to me. Or it might not be true. What is obvious to me might not be obvious to you. And believing something to be true doesn’t make it so.
If you and I believe the world is flat then it is “common sense” that the world is flat. Anyone who disagrees with us just doesn’t have common sense.
“I believe it. My friends believe it. If you disagree with us you must be wrong.”
This idea goes back a long way. In 325 AD, Constantine the Great gathered a council of Bishops in Nicea. They were required to come up with a creed for Christianity. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”, etc. They called it the Nicene Creed. If you accepted the creed, you were an Orthodox Christian. Orthos is Greek for “right”. Doxos means “opinion”. If you believed what they did you were of the “right opinion”. If you didn’t you were a heretic, and we all know what to do with heretics.
We now have Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and for that matter, Ethiopian Orthodox. Each thinking that their version is the “right opinion.”
The political version of the same thing is the “Right Thinking Person”.
As in “The time has come for all right thinking people to come to the aid of the Party.” It doesn’t matter what your political leanings are. So long as you are in our political party, you must be a right thinking person. Not like those wrong thinking people in the other parties.
The phrases “Common Sense”, “Orthodox”, or “Right Thinking Person” are used as substitutes for logic, or evidence. They are a type of Appeal to Authority. Usually, in an appeal to authority, you claim something must be true because someone important believes it.
“Sir Isaac Newton believed it and he was an intelligent person, therefore it must be true.” In reality, this is not necessarily true because even intelligent people believe things that are not true.
The common sense argument is an appeal to the authority of numbers. “It’s common sense. Lots of people believe this. Forty million idiots can’t be wrong.”
So when I read the article about safely surfing the net and they suggested using common sense, I had to stop and think.
Whose common sense was I supposed to use?
Everybody has a collection of experiences that they use to explain the world. Everyone’s experiences are different. These experiences create a person’s beliefs and therefore what they think is common sense. A computer geek may have the right sort of common sense to decide how to control what his kids are viewing. But I might not. And since no two people have identical beliefs, you cannot be sure if you have the same common sense as the author.
So the advice to use common sense is useless. The next time you are told to use common sense, be careful whose common sense you use.