It was predictable that a change of Westminster policy on dealing with the pandemic would involve an appeal to common sense. Such appeals are never far from political advice. In the far-off days when there were live audiences for programmes such as Question Time
or Any Questions,
an appeal to common sense would get a round of applause. In defending the 'Stay Alert' policy, the Foreign Secretary exhorted us to use common sense, and the Prime Minister was sure his policy would be followed by 'good solid British common sense'. Indeed, William Hague (who he? – the Tory leader who wore the baseball cap) made a pitch at a party conference with the slogan 'Conservatism as common sense'. But what exactly is common sense?
Before getting round to tackling that question, I note that the police will be involved in enforcing common sense, and legal penalties for breaches of common sense are still in place. But Lord Sumption, former Supreme Court judge, points out that while common sense requires judgement, the law requires exact definition, and exact definition is not compatible with individual judgement. It is therefore no surprise that there have been cases of over-zealous police interference.
The reason that appeals to common sense are successful with the public is that, like a sense of humour, we all think we have it. The philosopher Descartes, writing in 1637 in his Discourse on Method
, says: 'Common sense is the best distributed commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it'. But what is it that we think we are well supplied with?
Definitions of common sense are not possible since the concept slides among a number of possible meanings depending on the context. One strand is anti-theory, the idea that what is important is something down-to-earth that we can all understand. What lies behind this is experience familiar to most people of the ills and stresses of life on them, and not much time for theory.
Vernacular language and dialect can distil this kind of earthy, life-experience common sense. Burns makes good use of the vernacular in several poems. For example, in Holy Willie's Prayer
, the high-falutin' theology of Calvinism is made to sound silly when it is stated in Ayrshire dialect:
O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
As it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to Heaven an' ten to Hell,
For Thy glory,
And no for onie guid or ill
They've done afore Thee!
Or in The Twa Dugs
, the aristocratic practice of the grand tour through Europe is made fun of when one of the dugs, Caesar, describes his master's antics as follows:
At operas an' plays parading,
Mortgaging, gambling, masquerading;
Or maybe, in a frolic daft,
To Hague or Calais takes a waft,
To make a tour, and tak a whirl,
To learn bon ton, an' see the worl
So common sense can be seen as a critique of dubious theory or pretentious behaviour.
People in the UK (unlike, say, the French) tend to be anti-intellectual – hence the popularity of appeals to common sense. Oddly, the philosopher who is best known in Scotland – David Hume – put forward theories which were quite contrary to common sense. Hume and his predecessor Francis Hutcheson held that when we judge something to be wrong we are just expressing our feelings. To take a stark example, suppose someone says that the Holocaust was utterly wrong and evil. According to Hume's analysis they are not really making a judgement about the Holocaust but expressing what they happen to feel about it.
Something nearer ordinary views was developed by another philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment – Thomas Reid (1710-96). Reid founded a school of philosophy on 'common sense'. One of its basic ideas is that language means just what it says. Judges in pronouncing sentence in criminal cases often make moral judgements, describing some criminals as depraved, cowardly, heartless and so on. Reid makes the witty point against Hutcheson and Hume that if their views were correct we should really call a judge a 'feeler'. Of course, there is much more to be said than my crude parody suggests, but Reid has touched on something that appeals to common sense: that in some situations, evil ones perhaps, we feel that the evil is not just in our emotional reaction but is inherent in the situation.
The general point that Reid is making – and it is perhaps the main point behind appeals to common sense – is that all of us have a need for criteria of acceptability of a theory or policy other than logic, science or economics. The policy must in some way have connections with what we all vaguely or intuitively know to be the case from our own experience.
Not all philosophers have been in favour of common sense, and mathematicians hardly ever. I remember hearing a Cambridge mathematician preferring one theorem over another on the grounds that it started from axioms which were entirely counter-intuitive. As Bertrand Russell said: 'Common sense is just the metaphysics of the caveman', meaning by that that primitive attitudes become distilled into our common sense ways of looking at the world. This can be seen, for example, in the contradictory nature of proverbs which are often cited by adherents to common sense: 'Too many cooks spoil the broth', but 'Many hands make light work', or 'A stitch in time saves nine', but we should 'Live one day at a time'.
A recent example of a political policy meant to appeal to common sense states: 'Nationals from other countries entering the UK must be quarantined for 14 days', but the policy also says that the French and Irish are exempt. The downside to common sense is best stated by George Bernard Shaw in his notes to Caesar and Cleopatra
: 'A man of great common sense and good taste, meaning thereby a man without originality and moral courage'.
You can pick your own example.