<img src="https://trc.taboola.com/1321591/log/3/unip?en=page_view" width="0" height="0" style="display:none">

Fact Check with Logically.

Download the Free App Today

The Case Against Common Sense

The Case Against Common Sense

In December 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the British Conservative politician Michael Gove was called on to grapple with one of philosophy’s deepest and most divisive questions: Is a Scotch egg a main meal or a starter?"

For readers unfamiliar with the concept, a Scotch egg is a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and coated in breadcrumbs. Gove’s view, aired on the radio station LBC, was that despite earlier claims by his colleague George Eustice, a Scotch egg is a starter (and not a “substantial meal”). “A couple of Scotch eggs is a starter as far as I’m concerned,” he said, emphatically.

Why did a member of the British cabinet feel the need to make this remark at a time of national crisis? It was related to strict government guidelines about COVID restrictions; as a starter, the egg in question could not be served with alcohol in pubs in Tier Two areas.

Interestingly, in an attempt to offer clarity on this peculiar issue, Gove also provided the following statement: “The Government is relying on people’s common sense.” Apparently, “common sense” would tell us whether or not a Scotch egg counts as a starter or a main meal. 

This was not the only time politicians have appealed to our “common sense” during the pandemic. More recently, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps encouraged travelers to use “common sense” when considering whether or not to visit so-called amber list countries, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson told citizens to use “common sense” after restrictions were eased on July 19. According to Johnson, “good solid British common sense” saw the nation through the early stages of the pandemic and will serve us well in the stages that follow.

What is common sense?

Common sense is understood to be a regulative principle (a principle that we can use to regulate our behavior). It is called on to help us decide whether a Scotch egg is a meal, whether it’s safe to travel (what constitutes “essential travel”), and whether wearing masks in public is necessary or not. Moreover, it is supposed to be a way of thinking that we all have in “common”; any number of people can look at a single specific situation and (supposedly) form the same commonsensical judgment. As a shared and reliable resource, common sense is seen to allow us to settle disagreements.

Gove and Eustice’s differing opinions about “substantial meals” are to some extent trivial, but the discussion exposes some of the limitations of the concept of common sense. How can everybody have the same commonsensical understanding of the very precise do’s and don’ts of Scotch-egg eating during a pandemic? If common sense is a capacity that allows us to reach certain judgments it appears unable to ensure that we reach the same judgments. It is not monolithic. This opens up the possibility that what is commonsensical to some people might be different to what is commonsensical to others – something that Johnson indicated when he referred to “good solid British common sense.”

Once we admit that common sense is common to certain people, it begins to appear more insidious.

Once we admit that common sense is common to certain people, it begins to appear more insidious. As a concept, it can be used to control some groups while providing privileges and powers to others. This, at least, is the view of writers like Alexis Shotwell, Darren Chetty, Mimi Nguyen, Antonio Gramsci, Himani Bannerji, (and me).

As Chetty points out in his paper ""Racism as Reasonableness," common sense figures in a constellation of concepts (like “reasonableness”) which are used to reinforce views of what is and isn’t normal while pretending to be self-evident truths. Referring to claims as “commonsensical” is a way of smuggling ideology into a conversation (ideology is the system of often implicit ideas that structure society). This could relate to views about sexuality (e.g. “It’s common sense for men to marry women. Think about it, it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”) or to racial categories (e.g. “It’s common sense to think about people based on how they look. Birds of a feather flock together!”) or, indeed, to culinary habits relating to Scotch eggs.

“British” common sense is indexed to a certain group of people – “the British.” This reinforces a view of a uniform group and the idea that there’s a sense and value system commonly shared by British people – and not, for instance, migrants or EU citizens residing in the U.K. (a view with particular resonance within the context of Brexit). The implication is that if there’s such a thing as French or Nigerian or Chinese common sense, they have no bearing here.

Alexis Shotwell is one of common sense’s most insightful and incisive critics. In her book, Knowing Otherwise, she uses the work of Nguyen, Gramsci, Bannerji, and others to show how common sense resists critical analysis while exerting a force that is no less powerful for being invisible. Like Gramsci, she sees common sense as a conduit of ideology, organizing the public according to specific norms. Common sense is transmitted in “the state-modulated social-realm – in churches and schools, among other places.” In those arenas, as well as popular culture, citizens are given a sense of what is and isn’t normal. (In schools, for instance, where students are split into “boys” and “girls”, gender binaries are implicitly reinforced; thanks to tax breaks, marriages are presented as a social good.)

It’s unsurprising, then, that within the political arena, what counts and doesn’t count as common sense is constantly being contested. When the Labour leader Keir Starmer called financial dispensations for NHS staff “a victory for common sense,” he was positioning state support for nationalized healthcare as “normal” (and privatization as “abnormal”). When, at the end of 2020, the High Court ruled that under-16s are insufficiently mature to give informed consent to the use of puberty blockers, it was similarly hailed by some as a “victory for common sense.” Seeing it in this way likewise reinforced certain norms about gender, consent, and rights over bodily autonomy, without argument.

When citizens are told to “use common sense,” the burden of responsibility is shifted away from the government and towards the individual.

Common sense is also useful for the political liberal. A political liberal is someone who thinks that personal freedom (liberty) is the highest social good and, as such, government intervention into private life should be kept to a minimum. In its economic form, liberalism demands minimal interference with the free market (e.g. minimal taxation). Common sense is a resource that everyone can use without the government getting involved. When citizens are told to “use common sense,” the burden of responsibility is shifted away from the government and towards the individual (a dynamic described by Jonathan Portes in the Financial Times). When Boris Johnson asked people to use “good solid British common sense,” the message was that it’s not up to the state to help or advise individuals, but for individuals to help themselves.

Johnson’s use of the phrase is especially interesting against the backdrop of recent forms of lobbying by Conservative MPs. In 2019, 59 Conservative MPs and seven peers formed what they called the “Common Sense Group” (CSG), under the chairmanship of Sir John Haynes. In May 2021, this group released a book titled Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age, described by the Spectator as an “anti-woke manifesto”, which aims to “defeat wokeism,” an ideology which (according to one of its contributors, Gareth Bacon MP) displays an “intense hostility to western civilisation.” A central aim of the book is to argue for the removal of what its authors see as excessive state interference (and what those on the left often configure as state support or care). Danny Kruger MP holds, for instance, that the restrictions instituted during the pandemic have been too intrusive and constitute a “loss of liberty.” Andrew Lewer MP endorses privatized schooling, and in a chapter titled “Taking Politics Out of Policing,” Chris Loder MP and Tom Hunt MP argue that government investigations into institutional racism in the police force are an unwelcome hindrance brought about by left-leaning groups like the Black Lives Matter movement and Extinction Rebellion. Calling for a “commonsensical” approach to these issues, the contributors are suggesting that oversight should be restricted and greater control should be invested in non-governmental bodies, such as the police force or – as Fiona Bruce and David Burrowes write in their chapter “Family Matters” – the traditional nuclear family.

Common sense has typically been seen as the preserve of the political right. It serves as a conduit to a traditional, folkloric way of thinking grounded in communal opinion rather than fact. However, as a rhetorical tool, it has been appealed to by the Left as well – thus in 2018, the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called, perhaps somewhat desperately, for a “new common sense.” However, the concept often obscures more than it grants insight. It’s a risky shortcut, to argue for something without actually arguing for it. Significantly, Shotwell also reminds us that it’s different from another, preferable capacity that we find within its ambit – a capacity that Gramsci simply called “good sense.” It makes sense, perhaps, to aspire to “good sense” rather than fighting for control of the commonsensical.

Dr. Adam Ferner is a freelance writer, editor, and educator whose books include: Organisms and Personal Identity (2015), Think Differently (2016), Philosophy: A Crash Course (with Zara Bain and Nadia Mehdi, 2018), and How to Disagree (with Darren Chetty, 2018). The Philosophers’ Library (with Chris Meyns) and Notes from the Crawl Room will be published later this year.

Related Articles

The Democratic National Convention Did Not Take Place

In my other life, in the other doomed industry I have chosen to dedicate my once promising talents to, I am currently in the process of preparing classes for the university courses I adjunct on. Naturally, this year is ‘going to be a bit different’....