Flat White

The end of common sense

6 May 2020

7:37 PM

6 May 2020

7:37 PM

Let’s talk about common sense. Better still, let’s not. Instead, let’s delete the phrase from our vocabulary.  

Common sense in the sense that we commonly use it doesn’t exist. But people in this COVID-19 crisis are calling for it. “For Pete’s sake, have some common sense.”  Maybe Pete, whoever he is, will be happy – it’s for his sake after all. Perhaps it’s Pete at the Pearly Gates. ‘Nah, you’re not coming in, mate. Not enough common sense.’ Apparently you need it, but what is it?  

These days common sense refers to having the ability to make sound judgements or wise decisions, but that is not the original sense. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century reportedly added ‘common sense’ to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell to describe the situation where input from the five senses formed a whole. The senses were all in agreement; they were common. Nowadays, we attribute this to the role of a bundle of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum, which links the left and right hemispheres of our brain. 


The key point here is that the original common sense is personal and individual. Common sense was when all the senses of one person aligned. But what is common sense for me might not be common sense for you. And that’s why the current trans-person usage should be abandoned. 

We are believing the lie that if we all apply common sense we should all reach the same conclusion or follow the same course of action. If I ponder a particular activity or issue, apply common sense and reach a conclusion, and if you do the same, we should reach the same conclusion  because common sense is king (or at least common). And if we don’t reach the same conclusion, then I have the right to cry “For Pete’s sake, show some common sense.” And if I’m a pleb and you’re a decision maker, it seems I can shout it all the louder.  

Given that we often reach different conclusions on important topics — even though we all consider ourselves to be applying common sense suggests — its a misnomer. There must be other factors at play causing our varying conclusions. Here are a few to get you started: different background, different motives, different intellectual investment in the topic, different knowledge, different training, different understanding – simply, different perspective. 

Linked in with these factors is our appetite for and tolerance of risk. An example might help – house (or contents) insurance. Common sense would inform many to pay the premium for comprehensive and appropriate cover. It’s just common sense. Common sense would inform others that the chance of a loss is unlikely so save money on the premiums. It’s just common sense. Where’s Pete when you need him? 

Some complex decisions are required in the management of the COVID-19 crisis. People will disagree with some but calling for common sense won’t help. 

Do the world a favour and stop using common sense. But if you must use it, for Pete’s sake apply some common sense before you do.  

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