Saturday, January 21, 2017

Just Use Some Common Sense – An Idea to Ponder

Want to have some fun? Pull together a group of people who are willing to share two or three phrases their mother or father often quoted. My mother, for example, would remind her caught-red-handed-guilty child, "Be sure your sins will find you out." Or when I, or one of my siblings, did something particularly dumb she would say, "You don't have the brains God gave a goose."

Perhaps the All-American, Grand Champion admonition is "Use some common sense." If you grew up without being given that advice you are a rare bird indeed.

The idea of "common sense" is as old as our country. It came to us through Scottish ancestors who strongly believed that there was an innate ability in humans to know right from wrong, smart from dumb, practical from impractical, profitable from unprofitable, true from false. The idea of Common Sense Realism is very likely the source of Jefferson's famous phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And I've been reminded that Thomas Paine's famous, and inflammatory essay was entitled, Common Sense.

The alternative to common sense is the belief that important knowledge is the preserve of an elite few to whom we turn when we are in need of special understanding and guidance. Americans have always been partial to the idea that the common man (or woman) using common sense is equal to any challenge. The creators of the U.S. Constitution had such faith in the common man that they kept all offices of government open to all citizens with no educational or professional restrictions at all. If you were a specified age and a bone fide citizen you could run for and serve in any office of the land including the Supreme Court. (It needs to be noted however that in most states at the time our nation was formed a "citizen" was a white, male, Christian, 21 years old or older, who owned a specified amount of real property. The majority of common men and women were excluded.)

Another indication of our trust in the common man, and his common sense, is our use of a jury of peers to decide matters of law and even matters involving life and death.

But how far are we willing to carry this idea of common sense? We see that our founders limited it, in the case of voting, to an exclusive group. Are there classes of people whose judgment we are unwilling to place equal to our own? Do Democrats trust the common sense of Republicans? Do Republicans grant wisdom to the ideas of Democrats? Is there a common sense that draws people of different religious faith into harmony and trust? Do Christians trust the common understandings of Muslims and vise versa? Can we trust the common sense ideas we encounter on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to guide us in important aspects of our lives?

When does common sense make sense and when is it merely nonsense?

I'm not going to answer that question but I invite you to think about it. It seems obvious to me that, despite our profession of belief in the wisdom of the common man and our declared trust in his common sense, we frequently are reluctant to commit ourselves to anyone's common sense but our own. And in really important matters we seek, not the common man, but someone who has an uncommon sense of what is true and wise and practical; a specialist.

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