Saturday, 30 March 2013
It has not been easy to write about Common Sense for three reasons:
a) I find it to be a concept that is intangible and hard to pin down.
b) In thinking about Common Sense I have been continuously having what Bernard Williams called, "One thought too many".*
c) appeals to “common sense” are too frequently used as a way to bypass rational argument and to shut down debate.
So I shall start with Thomas Paine. At the heart of his pamphlet, "Common Sense" (1775), are seven straightforward, clear reasons why the American people should throw off British rule. He wrote it in plain language and addressed his pamphlet to the people, not to the leaders.
I find his reasons irrefutable, and his wish to explain his ideas so clearly to the populace in general, admirable. I also take it, from his pamphlet, that common sense is about clear, plain reasoning that is related to the realities of life and the appropriate exercise of power. Not related to any dogma or ideology, but to firm commitment to one's beliefs such as Paine's commitment to human rights about which he wrote more in "The Rights of Man" (1791).
So far so good. The elements of common sense that I understand so far are demonstrated by clear, plain reasoning, based on everyday reality.
Common sense also requires that we express our arguments to the right audience. No use railing against increases in prices to the person at the checkout then, or about the train service being unfit for purpose, to the ticket inspector. No use tilting at windmills. Although this might release a few feelings, albeit to somebody else's displeasure or discomfort.
No wonder that Rabbi Lionel Blue, in his talks on the radio often referred to "Uncommon Sense". He was acknowledging how often passion overrules common sense reasoning.
On the other hand David Hume declared that "Reason is the slave of the passions". It is human to feel deeply about the people and events in our lives. And I agree with Hume that our powers of reasoning are there to be applied in the service of that which we hold dear. This could lead to a selfish or amoral existence but Hume promotes sympathy, through which we can desire for our fellow human beings that which we desire for ourselves.
These desires might be for freedom from oppression and cruelty, for justice, and the right to a family life and happiness. So we come back to Thomas Paine and his common sense approach to matters political, social, moral and passionate.
If I am not to have "one thought too many" and wander too far into abstract argument, I must look at the reality of everyday life now. We live in a time of recession, but in general we are rich compared to the greater part of the world's population. We have political parties who agree about many of the main problems but squabble over details disguised as principles.
The outcome is a kind of tinkering around the edges that does not halt the decay in standards of care and provision felt by the most vulnerable in our society. For example, as an ex-schoolteacher I am less concerned about the "What", that is represented by the school curriculum, than I am about the "Who" represented by the pupils, parents and the community. I am passionate about building communities of healthy families; active, enquiring children; and thriving caring communities. I am passionate about teaching children "How" to learn, not "What" to learn. Provide the right conditions for learning and our children will learn more than we could ever teach them. We need to get our priorities right.
Common Sense tells me that I have two powers: the power of the vote and the power of words. If I am to speak or write I must be like Thomas Paine. I must be clear, plain, straightforward, realistic and write with conviction with open address. Common sense also tells me that where people do not speak out clearly disasters happen.
So to sum up, what do I think common sense is?
I think it comprises:
- A sense of reality, of what "makes sense, here, now, today" **
- A sense of cause and effect
- A sense of being a part of a greater whole
- A sense of the possible
- A sense of the practical
- A sense of commitment and consistency
- A sense of the opposite, the other side
- A sense of common ground
- A sense of belief in humanity and human rights and obligations
- A sense of what is important
- A sense of hope
- The courage of one's convictions.
This Easter I hope for an increase in this uncommon Common Sense for all the world's leaders and for ordinary people like me.
* and **: see "In The Beginning Was The Deed, Realism and Moralism in Political Argument", Bernard Williams, edited by Geoffrey Hawthorn. 2005 Princeton Press
With special appreciation to Hannah for your comments. I feel that if I answer myself it closes the debate, so I hope that more folk will find time to join in.
Best wishes to all, whether at home or away.