Common sense. Suddenly, there is apparently a lot of it about. People should, “use their common sense,” suggests the Prime Minister, before publishing 50 pages of rules and advice on easing the lockdown which sometimes lack that quality, especially in relation to schools and travel.
Perhaps Boris Johnson is simply reflecting back at the public what they have already decided for themselves. At least, that is what a Surrey plumber told a reporter on Channel 4 news: “I don’t think it is complicated. Just be sensible. What do you want? A handbook telling you what to do?”
For those of us who have believed all along that, with the right regulatory, institutional and fiscal framework, society has a bias towards behaving and growing responsibly, this is to be welcomed. The penny may at last have dropped in Westminster.
By coincidence, an American academic called Robert Curry has just published a book called Reclaiming Common Sense. He argues that common sense is the acceptance of certain, “self-evident truths,” which enable us to acquire knowledge and skills and make moral judgements on the basis of experience. He regrets what he sees as an assault by intellectuals and bureaucrats on this tried and tested philosophy.
Too many political types have also jettisoned common sense in recent years, to replace it with endless polling and intrigue. Policies which, based on experience, actually work do not always feature in their calculations. This partly explains recent Prime Ministers repeatedly ending in failure, despite gaining office with strong mandates.
The Founding Fathers
Common sense realism was the creed of the American Founding Fathers, who had picked it up from the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Curry quotes Thomas Reid, who wrote in An Inquiry Into The Human Mind And The Principles of Common Sense of, “certain principles which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them, they are what we call the principles of common sense.”
Reid had a profound influence on Thomas Paine, whose bestselling book Common Sense sparked an urgent questioning of the hierarchical status quo that British rule had inflicted on the American states. His words helped fuel the drive to independence.
Interestingly, Curry claims Reid also influenced the novels of Jane Austen. In Sense and Sensibility the two Dashwood sisters embody the twin themes of the book. Marianne falls deeply in love with a bounder called Willoughby. Elinor remarks of Marianne, that “in a few years she will settle her opinions on the basis of observation and common sense.”
Marianne’s opinions are, “all romantic” and Elinor asserts the importance of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance, echoing the common sense virtues of, “piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection, and private virtue,” advocated by Reid. Jane Austen’s novels also demonstrate that she understood the related virtues of thrift and industry, but that is another story.
Method and moderation
To these we must also add scientific method, in other words, proceeding not just on the basis of observation of the evidence, but also learning by testing hypotheses and admitting our mistakes. This is how engineers, doctors, craftsmen and good tradespeople advance. Moderation also has its place, as does its cousin, irony. Humour, I read somewhere, is common sense on speed. The failure to realise this is where ideologues, and many voluble advocates of common sense themselves, have fallen down.
Ironically, Thomas Paine, the self-confessed apostle of common sense, ended up having a furious pamphlet war with Edmund Burke, wrongly championing the French Revolution well after it descended into extremism and violence, as Burke had warned. Paine ended up in prison in France. That is the thing with common sense. A wise person recommends its benefits lightly, rather than asserting volubly that they alone have it, while everybody else is unfortunately born with one screw loose.