Whatever Happened to Common Sense?
Recently I was asked to help the manager of an apartment complex to revise and update the Rules and Regulations by which both owners and renters must abide. As I was talking with the complex manager about the details, he suggested some additions to which I responded “But aren’t those common sense?” He rightly responded “There no such thing as common sense anymore.” I couldn’t argue with that.
Was there ever such a thing as “common sense?” Well, at least Thomas Paine thought so. Likely, though, it would be very difficult to find anything universally agreed upon in terms of right and wrong behavior if one looked widely and deeply enough throughout and world and in history. But let’s try.
By far the majority of people throughout history and throughout the world believe that killing innocent people, especially children, is wrong, bad, even evil. Of course there are exceptions; I said “the majority of people.” We generally consider people who murder innocent people, especially children, psychopaths. Notoriously, however, many Romans did kill unwanted children by exposing them to the natural elements. Early Christians vocally opposed this practice.
But what else do we “generally consider” wrong and right—as a matter of human or at least Western consensus, intuition, common sense, whatever?
As I wrote the new version of the apartment complex rules and regulations my mind wandered back to when I lived there, not that long ago, and what I saw outdoors, in the parking lot, on the patios and balconies, on the grass, etc. And my mind wandered through the television shows I had watched over the years—from children’s programming to dramas and sitcoms meant for adults.
My list of rules and regulations got longer and more detailed. Things I am sure I could take for granted that apartment dwellers in the U.S. would take for granted as wrong became fewer and fuzzier. It’s wrong to toss a large TV into a dumpster? It’s right to pick up trash that’s “fallen from the sky” as it were (or someone dropped) and throw it in the dumpster as you pass by it? It’s wrong to vandalize property? It’s right to pay for the ceiling of the apartment below when your aquarium leaks? It’s wrong to sit in your car in the parking lot playing extremely loud music with all your windows down at 11:00 PM? It’s right to shovel the snow out from behind your neighbor’s car next to your own when she is an eighty-year old widow lady?
Of course, much of that I couldn’t put in the Rules and Regulations, but not that many years ago I KNOW I could take for granted that most people would consider them all common sense things to do and not to do. I now KNOW I can’t take them for granted.
The other day I was walking from my car toward the entrance to a grocery store when a little boy, about eight years old, approached me and asked if I would help him and his dad buy gas for their car. The gas station was at the edge of the parking lot. I asked him where his dad was. He pointed toward the entrance and said “There, behind that pillar.” I walked up to the man and asked “Is that your boy out there asking for money?” He said “No,” but I knew the boy was his son. The boy was very uncomfortable doing what his father made him do. When I came out with a security person, they were gone.
Isn’t that human trafficking? I asked the security person if there was anything the store could do to stop such things from happening in the parking lot. He said “We could call the police, but they wouldn’t come.”
I confess my own common sense left me when the boy asked me for money. I should not have confronted his father because that probably resulted in the boy being punished, possibly physically. And, as a Christian, especially, I should have asked the boy how I could help him (not his father who was not very old and looked strong and well). Could I buy him a sandwich and drink and bring it out to him? (I never carry cash and I’m quite sure if I had given him cash his father would have taken it.)
Well, that’s just an anecdote, but this blog is called my “musings.” I have the feeling that there really is no such thing anymore as common sense. What can we in America (I’ll limit my question to my own society) take for granted? I certainly can’t take for granted that when my traffic light turns green I can “go.” That would result in an accident as two, three, sometimes four cars go through the intersection on red lights in front of me.
It used to be common sense in America that religion was generally speaking a good thing for society. It used to be common sense in America that the “deserving poor” should be looked after and taken care of, by family if possible, and by the community as necessary. It used to be common sense in America that selflessness and altruism were virtues, everywhere and at all times. It used to be common sense in America that it is wrong to dump unwanted pets out in the countryside or alongside the freeway.
As I wrote the new version of the Rules and Regulations, I realized that I could leave nothing to common sense; everything the management and owners association wanted residents to do and not to do had to be spelled out very specifically and in great detail. Nothing could be left to common sense. Don’t park in someone else’s assigned parking space. Don’t park next to a sign that says “No Parking by Order of the Fire Marshal.” Don’t put anything on your balcony railing that could fall off. Don’t leave your clothes in the common laundry room washing machine after the cycle is finished. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
On what do I blame this loss of common sense? I blame American individualism—as strongly promoted by the mass media, social media, popular culture. “To yourself be true.” “Be yourself.” “Don’t fit in; stand out.” Advertising: “You deserve [everything]….” “No limits.”
The problem, as I see it, is that a society cannot survive long without SOME sense of common sense, of right and wrong. Not everything can be legislated nor should it be. A society must be a community to survive. And a community must have some consensus about what constitutes “good” and “bad” behaviors. In America today the one dominating “common sense” consensus is individual freedom, self-realization and fulfillment, being happy on one’s own terms, NOT being a community. We are, I think, the most individualistic society that ever existed. And that is a problem. I can foresee the demise of America as a nation state sometime in the future, not from forces outside our borders but by slow disintegration of any sense of unifying common sense from within.
*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures and links. Also, I will no longer approve and post here comments that are rude or mere assertions without reasons given. Common sense here includes civility.*