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The Folly of Common Sense by Michael Mitchell

The Folly of Common Sense
by Michael Mitchell

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In recent months, it has been very popular with the national media and with advocates of gun control legislation to refer to "common sense" restrictions on gun purchases and possession. The Million Moms March (which drew, of course, only 100,000 or so participants) crusaded for "sensible gun laws".

I would like to examine exactly what the phrase "common sense" means in this context - the context of legislative proposals - and why you, the reader, should be instantly suspicious at its utterance. In general, "common sense" is understood to have the following characteristics:

  • It is common to everyone; that is, everyone understands this information, or should.
  • It is instinctively understood; that is, it needs no analysis or explanation. It is obvious.

Let us examine in detail each of these characteristics of "common sense".

Common sense is common to everyone.

This principle indicates that there is widespread support for the idea. Everyone understands it and agrees with it, or should. Therefore, nobody disagrees with the idea - nobody with any sense, anyway. Remember this point; I'll come back to it later.

Common sense is instinctively understood.

Most people accept "common sense" principles as a knee-jerk reaction. Since common sense principles are instinctively understood, they need no substantiation - or thought. During normal legislative debates, each participant must be armed with factual evidence and a logical train of thought in support of his contentions. If he isn't, he'll be laughed out of the debate. However, the label of "common sense" changes all that. If the individual making the assertion can force the opposition to accept his notions as "common sense", he has relieved himself of the burden of proof. After all, it's obvious that the idea is true; why would he have to prove it? It's as though his opposition has asked him to prove that 1 plus 1 is 2.

Further assisting his cause is the follow-up conclusion that, if the opposition does ask for proof, he obviously has no common sense. It therefore follows that there is no need to discuss the issue with him, as one does not attempt to debate people who are not sensible. In other words, the opponents of the idea do not have to be answered or acknowledged, because they are not sensible. This is a very important point. By following this line of reasoning, you can completely dismiss your opposition with the application of a single phrase: "Common sense". You can utterly discredit anyone who disagrees with you, because that person is obviously not sensible. Incredibly powerful.

Can you see why those who oppose "common sense" legislative proposals are reviled publicly? In the minds of the media leaders, the opponents of these measures are just freaks, irrational lunatics who have no common sense and no popular support. And, incredibly, the supporters of these measures have created this image by doing nothing more than calling their proposals "common sense". They haven't justified or proven their positions; they haven't presented any practical evidence in support of it. Instead, they've turned respect for thought and logic into ridicule, and uplifted knee-jerk, emotional reactions as appropriate justification for legislative change.

The truth of the matter is, the people who oppose "common sense" legislation are most likely the ones who are actually using their intelligence. They have evaluated the proposal against the factual evidence and analyzed it logically. They have come to the conclusion that, in fact, the proposal does not make sense, common or otherwise. How can I know this? I know this by evidence of opposition. If they hadn't considered the measure carefully, they would have accepted it as beneficial due to its "common sense" nature, just like everyone else. The fact that they are opposed to it means that they have challenged its "common sense" label and found it lacking. Yet, they are publicly cursed for their opposition - arrived at through logical thought and factual evaluation.

When an individual asks you to accept a proposal because it's "common sense", he is asking you to surrender your mind. He is asking you to accept that his proposal is the right thing to do, without question. He's hoping that you will be embarrassed into agreeing with him; after all, who wants to be accused of having no common sense? He's afraid of your intelligence. He's hoping that you won't use it - no, worse; he's attempting to intimidate you away from using it. He's trying to prevent you from thinking about his proposal. Why?

Unexposed, this strategy is tremendously powerful, and equally damaging. How many people have fallen into this trap of implied peer pressure and unsubstantiated dictates? Have you?

As historical references, I would like to present some of the ideas once touted as "common sense":

  • That the world was flat
  • That life sprang from garbage via spontaneous generation
  • That the earth was the center of the universe

"Common sense" is fine if you're discussing staying out of the rain, or looking both ways before crossing the street. However, this smokescreen strategy has no place in discussions of the merits of legislative proposals. It's deceptive at best, and downright evil at worst.

Never accept the label of "common sense" as proof of the merit of any proposal. Instead, be instantly suspicious. The individual speaking it is attempting to embarrass you into thinking that you must agree because everyone else does, and because it's intuitively obvious, and therefore not subject to debate. Recognize this evil for what it is, and reject it.

Whenever someone asks you to accept his proposal because it's "common sense", stop for a moment and think. What is it about his proposal that he's trying to hide? Why is he trying to stifle your intelligence? Research the topic. Determine for yourself whether or not what he's telling you measures up to reality and logic. Only then can you free yourself from the folly of "common sense."

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Copyright 2000 Michael A. Mitchell. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this article in its entirety, including this copyright notice, as long as credit is given to the original author. You can reach the author at Please comment.

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The people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them. Zachariah Johnson, 3 Elliot, Debates at 646

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