Evolution of Common Sense

December 2003


Discussion of the strange evolution of common sense in society, and what conclusions can be drawn about a society from the storehouse of common sense.

In every culture and epoch, there is a body of shared wisdom and experience which we refer to as common sense. Part empirical experience, part superstition, common sense can tell us a great deal about the people and culture that this collective wisdom reflects. Discovering what common sense was in the past can be challenging, since people rarely write about it as something in and of itself. It is usually a set of broad assumptions that must be deduced as much from what people fail to say as what they do say.

For example: locking your car. Common sense of today dictates that cars ought to be locked at all times. Many newer cars lock themselves automatically whenever driven more than 15 mph. It is not uncommon for people to lock their cars at the filling-station when they leave them for 90 seconds to pay for their gas. Common sense when I was a boy was about evenly split between those who maintained that locking the doors of a moving car made them less likely to open (therefore being safer) and those who maintained that locking your doors made it harder for you to be rescued in the event of a wreck (therefore being less safe). On a sunny afternoon, nobody who didn't own a new Cadillac locked their car when they went to the park. It was too hot to leave the windows up. If you had anything valuable, you put it in the trunk. When my mother was a girl, most cars could not be locked and those that could typically had only one keyhole -- on the passenger side front door. Before that time locking personal transportation was a moot question. You can't lock a horse.

The same locking mania has overtaken houses, too. The fact is that locked doors or windows keep thieves out for about 15 seconds. When I was a child "the key under the mat" was so common that burglars very seldom needed to ruin door jambs or break windows to get in. My mother's family, during her youth, had to call a locksmith because, after having lived in the house for a couple of years, they discovered that its locks didn't lock with any key they owned. This happened when they were going on a vacation. They didn't wait for the locksmith. They asked the neighbor to watch the house and to tell the locksmith what the trouble was... and to put the new key under the mat.

My children's friends are brought by their parents to our house to play. When it is time for one of them to go home, common sense says that I must take one of my own children with the visitor when I take them home -- thereby reducing the likelihood of being charged with child molestation. That bothers me in the same way it bothers me to pass through anti-theft scanners to get into a store -- it presumes that I am a thief. If I'm not trusted to take a kid home, then why did they let him come to my house? This did not come up when I was a kid. Nobody took us anywhere or picked us up either -- except for specific family type activities like picnics or school outings. We rode our bikes or walked. Sometimes we even resorted to public transportation. When it was time to go, nobody offered us a ride. If it was dark and raining like crazy, maybe the host would offer if they knew we lived a considerable distance away. In that event, either everyone would pile into the station wagon or the kids going home got rides, period. Common sense today says that you need a witness and an alibi for any situation.

Common sense used to say that people were mostly good. Occasionally, you would encounter an exception to the general rule: some maniac or professional criminal. Common sense says today that people are liars, cheats, thieves and child molesters. Occasionally, you may meet an exception to the general rule: a genuinely honest and harmless person. It seems an odd Calvinistic twist of general perception to presume that the opportunity for sin is the same as the possibility of it.

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