Print Edition: November 2, 2011
There is, everywhere in our public discourse, a nasty habit used by nearly all participants. It is something which does not exist and thus ought not to carry any persuasive power whatsoever, but nevertheless can and has been invoked to win the day. I am speaking of the scourge of “common sense,” that most contemptible thing that is used by writers and orators both great and terrible with varying levels of success. It is something that ought to be banished from our discourse forever.
Some of my past columns have generated a good deal of reader response in the form of letters to the editor, something that the newspaper has been rather pleased about. I am, of course, also very interested in promoting more discussion on campus and see the paper as an ideal vehicle for that. My recent pre-emptive response to an opinion piece about abortion “Yes, we all want to kill babies” has continued to generate letters from readers, all of whom happen to disagree with my view. Encountering those who disagree with me is by no means disagreeable, but the entire experience has sharpened my distaste for the “common sense” defence.
Some of these letters appealed, implicitly or otherwise, to notions of common sense as a part of their respective arguments and attempted refutations of my position. What is so unique and troubling about this particular argumentative manoeuvre is that it neither presents original evidence nor does it generate logically-persuasive connection between the propositions of an argument. That is, nothing new is said by appealing to common sense; nor are any new relationships between what has already been presented made apparent. On that basis alone we ought to object to any use of “common sense” whatsoever.
Leaving that aside for the moment, allow me to ask the obvious: what is common sense and why should we ever heed its so-called insights? From reading not just this newspaper’s recent letters to the editor, but those of the province’s major dailies, it appears as if common sense means we ought to enact a legislative ban on abortion, adopt widespread minimum sentences, cut taxes on businesses and capital, and slash government spending and thus involvement in things like education, medical care and income assistance. All of which is not just reactionary and ill-conceived, but it all sounds suspiciously like the public policy advanced by conservative parties in the Western world since the 1980s. (Mike Harris says hello.)
Now it may be the case that the common sense so often invoked by many is not, in fact, partisan; or, at least, not as partisan as it may otherwise be. But I am still left wondering why exactly I should follow a course of action or agree with a position that a large number of people endorse for no other reason than that a large number of people endorse it. I haven’t yet come across someone who has been able to adequately answer this question in the affirmative, although I am familiar with a rather large body of scholarly material that says the opposite.
Bad arguments, whatever their purpose or direction, are truly the bane of a robust civil discourse. Ridding ourselves of the “common sense” defence is just one measure that will improve things, and ought to be vigorously embraced. And when you do, your letters might just improve a bit too.