Why Common Sense is So Uncommon

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

Why is common sense so uncommon?

I've been reading Robert Curry's excellent new book Reclaiming Common Sense.

It got me thinking about why I and many other people often lack common sense.

For example, in college I was a libertarian. Mainstream libertarians believe that each of us has rights limited only by the same rights of other people: e.g., "my right to swing my fist ends where your face begins." As long as we don't commit aggressive violence, coercion, or fraud against others, we may do anything we like. Government exists to defend our rights.

However, a friend pointed out a contradiction. If we may do anything we like, then we may delegate our right of self-defense to any third party, not just to the government. That leads to anarcho-capitalism, under which private businesses would perform all the functions of government. So for a while, I was an anarcho-capitalist. I eventually grew out of it, mostly by studying history. If a utopian social order has never existed anywhere for longer than five minutes, you start to think there's a reason. There is.

Here's another example. After college, I worked on Capitol Hill for a while. I had a libertarian acquaintance who took a lack of common sense to a whole new level. He argued publicly that child pornography should be legal because if it had already been made, it was not at the current time abusing any children. The abuse had happened previously. He said that child abuse itself should be illegal, but not its result after the fact.

I want to add that I don't believe he'd ever been within 500 feet of any child pornography. He was just afflicted with what a professor of mine called "principle-itis:" pushing abstract principles to the point of complete absurdity.

A final example is from 2019. When anyone says that America is a great country, the standard reply is "Well, it was never great for minority X!" And that's supposed to settle the argument.

Let's grant their point: America in the past was not always great for blacks, gays, or for women who lacked some civil rights. Occasionally, it was awful. Undisputed.

On the other hand, you would search in vain for any real human society anywhere, at any time in history, where no group was treated worse than some other group. You would also find very few societies where minority groups were treated as well as they have been in America. And last but not least, America has been pretty good in most ways for the majority of people. On utilitarian grounds -- the greatest good for the greatest number -- it's been aces all around.

Compared to an abstract ideal of perfection, America isn't great. But compared to any other real countries, America is and always has been great. It hasn't fully lived up to its founding ideals that "all [people] are created equal," but at least it's tried. Other countries haven't.

And that's one reason people lack common sense. They think only of abstract principles and ideals, not of what's real or possible. But all are needed:

  • Without ideals, we can't know what we should do.
  • Without realism, we can't know how well we're accomplishing it.
  • Without experience, we can't know what's realistic.

When you combine ideals with realism and experience, you get common sense.

It might be uncommon, but it doesn't have to be. We need a lot more of it.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."