There Is No Such Thing As Common Sense

A seemingly ubiquitous phrase in today’s gun control debates is common sense, as in “Common sense gun laws”. This phrase is used in an attempt to invalidate the opposing view since it suggests that anyone who disagrees is devoid of common sense. It’s an almost clever way of trapping someone in an argument because no one wants to admit to being stupid. But what is common sense, really? 

Common sense is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”  Jim Taylor, Ph.D. defines it in Psychology Today as, “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study”, and then goes to explain why common sense is neither common, nor sense. Who decides what sound and prudent judgement is? In my mind, it is both a sound idea and a prudent practice to defend my family with guns that hold as much ammunition as possible. But “common sense” gun laws often restrict the means to protect my family to ten rounds or less.

Forgone conclusions are commonly misrepresented as common sense. What many call common sense has more to do with confirmation bias than it does with the concepts of right and wrong. To a person born before modern science was accepted as fact, common sense dictated that the stars revolved around a very flat Earth. This has since been disproven and children are now taught the truth, but challenging what was then considered common sense was dangerous, just as it is today.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor anything that confirms a person’s preconceived notions.  If someone already believes that the moon landings were faked, then they are likely to accept any information that agrees with this assertion just as they are unlikely to reject any information that disproves it, regardless of how rational the proof may be. This phenomenon has been shown to be more prevalent with emotionally charged issues, which happens to be where I most often hear the term common sense used.

Furthermore, if a group of like-minded people spend a lot of time together, they may start to accept their beliefs as common sense since everyone around them tends to think the same way. Internet forums bring together thousands of like-minded people where they can all celebrate their confirmation bias while belittling those who disagree with their views. This behavior is not restricted to politically charged topics, though; it happens with topics like writing, music, trucks, movies, and any other topic where people argue. This is called ingroup bias, and it is human nature.

Since ideas are reinforced when we spend time in groups of like-minded people, it holds that common sense is not universal, and can differ between people, groups, and even nations. Unfortunately, when people “know” the truth without reason, bad things happen.

Decision without reason is often described as common sense. “I don’t have to think about it because it’s obviously true” would raise a red flag with many people, but “common sense” does not. The clever use of words is the hallmark of marketing, and politicians spend a lot of time marketing their ideas to the public. Any time you hear the words “common sense” used to describe an idea, question the motives of those selling the idea. There is another word that describes opinion based on inadequate facts. The word is formed from the Latin præ- “before” + judicium “judgment”. That word is prejudice.

Since the idea of common sense only serves to confirm prejudices, the use of the term when trying to convince someone of anything, especially when proposing laws, is disingenuous, if not dangerous.

Laws should be based on reason. They should not be based on emotion, and they should certainly not be based on prejudice, regardless of how prevalent that prejudice may be.