Why Common Sense Isn’t All That Common

Bad Arguments Vol. 57

common sense

It’s a question that we’ve all had to ask at some point or another. Looking at how crazy our politics have gotten especially, we can find ourselves wondering what happened to common sense? From the older generations snickering at millennials’ supposed lack of key life skills, to the general head shaking that we’ve all experienced when seeing some of the stances and beliefs of people, we can find ourselves left in wonderment. There’s an issue with our cries to revive common sense, however, to explain will first require me to define.

What common sense is, in its own funny way, is common knowledge, no? Well, not exactly. There have been several very different meanings to the idea over the years, but I’ll condense them here. Common sense is defined in the following ways:

    • Good judgment derived from experience rather than study
    • The basic ability to judge or perceive things that is common to the majority of people
    • Sound practical judgment concerning common matters

As we can see, there isn’t really a common meaning to the phrase “common sense.” I won’t bore you with the semantic arguments such as “how can it be common if nearly no one seems to have it these days?” since the perceived lack of common sense is exactly what we’re trying to address. For simplicity, I’ll also leave out the various philosophical and psychological definitions as they mean something entirely different than what we’re aiming to tackle. Let’s take a look at each of these definitions in play and see where we’re going wrong.

Let’s assume (considering the majority libertarian readership that I mostly have) that you see someone advocating, say, for a $15 minimum wage. You might think to yourself “If you artificially raise the price of labor, then, businesses will cut labor, raise prices, or both. It’s common sense!” If we’re working with the first definition it becomes clear that common sense would indeed be lacking. The majority of people in the west have never lived outside of capitalist countries. The advocates of socialism, or ideas socialists advocate for aside from socialism itself, tend to be native born and, generally, too young to remember those that fled from Europe to escape countries run under those very ideas. To establish the first definition of common sense would require they have some form of experience relevant to the matter. As times change, so does the pool of common experience for us all to learn from.

If we’re going by the second definition we are, for the most part, really just making an appeal to popularity or what is known as the “Alleged Certainty Fallacy.” The alleged certainty fallacy is effectively just an empty assertion. It happens when we assert a claim as a conclusion despite providing no evidence or argument to support. We can’t use common sense as an authority, or simply say “common sense says X, so X” without justifying how or why the answer should be considered common sense. Such attempts, in general, will only lead to circular arguments when pushed far enough.

This brings us to our third definition. When we consider common sense to mean sound and trustworthy judgment in common matters we need to define what “common matters” are, and why we consider a particular judgment to be sound over another. Going back to our $15 minimum wage example, is logic sequencing based on conglomerated macro and micro economic knowledge really a “common matter?” Even broad stroke socioeconomics is, frankly, too vast of a topic for any collection of facts to be considered particularly common, or even limited enough for someone to have sound judgment on without extensive knowledge on the competing ideas and data points.

The reason common sense isn’t common isn’t because people suddenly stopped experiencing it. The diversification of thought, shift in what our common matters are, and poor assumptions over what should be considered common knowledge are what we have to blame. Common sense isn’t common directly because experience isn’t either, and even those experiences that are fall well outside the areas we try to apply the phrase.

Read more from Killian at Think Liberty here.



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