Harriet Beecher Stowe once defined common sense as “seeing things as they are, and doing things as they should be.” Stowe zeroed in on the clarity and obligation that comes from seeing the world as it truly is.
But how do we live in a world where common sense has become uncommon? A world in which we do not see things as they are, nor do we even agree on what things we see?
A civilization cannot survive without some degree of commonality in belief and practice. Without certain foundational truths agreed upon by most people, we cannot build anything beautiful and lasting. That’s why the disappearance of common sense—sense we truly hold in common—is often a sign of societal decay.
Guns, Medicine, and Marriage
Take, for example, how the debate over gun control has played out in recent weeks.
Most politicians and most Americans say they support “common-sense gun legislation.” The only problem is that our sense is not common. Americans have starkly different intuitions regarding the causes of and solutions for mass violence. It’s not that one segment of Americans “loves guns more than children” or another segment “hates the Constitution and welcomes tyranny.” It’s that, when it comes to violence and gun ownership, Americans do not share the same intuitions and sensibilities. We cannot pass “common-sense legislation” because there is no common sense on this matter.
Other debates in our society follow a similar pattern. Take the field of medicine.
The common-sense understanding of medical practice is that a doctor seeks to restore the body to its proper function. Body parts are ordered toward certain ends. The heart pumps blood. The nose is supposed to smell. The ears are supposed to hear. If a part of the body is failing, medicine seeks to restore it to its proper function.
But today we are losing “common-sense agreement” on what medicine is supposed to accomplish.
- We use the term “reproductive health” to describe a surgery that halts a healthy reproductive process and ends a new life in the womb.
- People demand “gender-reassignment surgeries” that involve the intentional mutilation or removal of healthy body parts that are functioning properly.
- Activists claim we are killing children if we withhold puberty-blocking hormones that bring about irreversible effects and prevent the development of a healthy reproductive system.
We all agree with the doctor’s vow to “do no harm,” but we no longer share a common understanding of what “health” and “harm” are.
Regarding marriage, for most Americans it’s common sense that gay marriage should be legal. Any other arrangement treats same-sex romantic partnerships unequally. But historically, it has been common sense that marriage is more than a romantic commitment. The male/female union has been a foundational and sacred pillar of society because it is the only union that can bring about new life. Common sense has changed. (And that’s why, in the future, there is nothing to prevent common sense from moving in the direction of “expanding” marriage to more than two romantic partners.)
Common Ground and Common Sense
My point is not that common sense is an infallible guide to justice and freedom. For some cultures, it was common sense that a widow would throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband. In the South, it was common sense among white people that the races were better off segregated. Common sense can be wrong.
My point is that in our society’s most contentious debates, we have a hard time finding “common ground” because there is no “common sense” regarding what’s at stake. The challenge we face is the disappearance of common sense at the level of ideals.
Our problem is not that we disagree over how to achieve the “common good”; it’s that we no longer share a vision of what the common good is or should be.
It’s one thing to debate the best way to achieve a goal. It’s another thing to debate the goal.
It’s one thing to debate the best path forward for making progress. It’s another thing to debate the destination toward which we hope to make progress in the first place.
This is the kind of common sense we lack today. And that’s what makes our dialogue and debate increasingly difficult.