Common sense has been much talked about this week, mostly in connection with the wearing of face masks. When step 4 of the government’s ‘roadmap to freedom’ starts, possibly on July 19th, wearing them will no longer be a legal requirement in most places in England. According to the Prime Minister, the decision to wear them will be a matter of “personal responsibility”, whilst the health minister, Helen Whately, said that people will be asked to “make a common sense judgement” about such issues. But what does this mean? I’ve long had a problem with the notion of common sense. People who use the term seem to imply that through its use we should be able to assess a situation and arrive a course of action which is both obvious and common to all. Whilst this may work in a few situations (though to be honest I’m struggling to think of an example) I suspect that for most, and particularly for novel situations like the current pandemic, it simply becomes an excuse to abandon reason rather than embrace it.
In The Myth Gap, Alex Evans argues that “When it comes to how we make up our minds about political issues, it turns out that evidence, facts and data matter much less than the values held by the people we hang out with.” I think that this applies to social issues generally, not just the overtly political ones. For most of us, most of the time, our personal responsibility is directed towards “the people we hang out with” rather than society as a whole, and the purpose of any “common sense judgement” is to endorse our relationship with them rather than challenge it. This process has a lot of similarity to confirmation bias – the process whereby we seek out ‘evidence’ to support what we already believe rather than throw it into doubt. So rather than challenge or strain important social, economic or political relationships through independent rational thought we tend to do the reverse, preferring to agree with whichever argument or course of action is likely strengthen these relationships. It takes a very strong independent mind to do otherwise.
Antonio Gramsci had a similar argument. In his Prison Notebooks common sense is described as that comforting set of certainties that make us feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the social world we inhabit. These ‘certainties’ are the basic realities we use to explain our world and experiences. For example, the dominant view in most western countries, the view adopted by a majority of politicians, and the view the world of business and commerce perpetuate, is one that focuses on both the individual (individual self-interest, individual rights) and the value of competition. In terms of mask wearing it is just ‘common sense’ that the needs of ‘the economy’ are of paramount importance and that the rights of the individual to be free of imposed restrictions are fundamental. But what this ‘common sense’ view of human life fails to note is that throughout human life on this planet cooperation has been of equal importance to competition, and that without human society there can be no individual. We are who we are because of our interaction with other people. As I heard one commentator on the mask debate say, social issues concern ‘we’, not ‘I’.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze made a useful comparison between common sense and good sense. Now Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read, but my take on him is that he largely agrees with Gramsci about common sense. Common sense objectifies the experienced diversity of our world, it produces our individualised ‘world view’, and in doing so it essentially looks backward. Good sense, on the other hand looks forward. Its purpose is to foresee, and in doing so it is far more analytical – the formula it uses is “on one hand and on the other hand”. Such a formula could be quite helpful in the coming weeks. Rather than just fall prey to the libertarian wing of their party, rather than prioritise economic growth over social wellbeing, the government should examine the evidence and listen to the experts. It would make good sense to listen to both England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and its chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who have said that they will continue to wear masks indoors (in crowded situations or when people are close together), if asked to by any competent authority, or as a common courtesy if someone else was uncomfortable. At the very least such restrictions should remain. It also makes good sense for shops and other places open to the public to have clearly defined times when masks will be worn. This will allow people who feel vulnerable to shop with some degree of ease. My fear is that leaving the decision about mask wearing to common sense will make a lot of people feel very uncomfortable and will produce a lot of social tension. I hope that good sense prevails.