I recently came across this on an H&S checklist issued to volunteers at an event and it started me thinking about the phase ‘common sense’, its origins, definition, uses and, of course, its application to health and safety.
A search of the HSE website (www.hse.gov.uk) revealed ‘Common Sense Common Safety’ (5). In this, Lord Young opines ‘Above all it means applying common sense not just to compensation but to everyday decisions once again’ and ‘My report highlights the role that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities have in promoting a common sense approach to health and safety’. The Prime Minister of the day, David Cameron, claims that the report ‘reinstates some common sense’. The reply to the report (6) from the then chair of the HSE broadly agrees with it but oddly doesn’t use the term ‘common sense’.
Further investigation reveals that ‘We can enable things to happen by employing a simple common sense approach’ and ‘A common sense approach is where proportionate action is taken to control the risks of whatever activity is due to take place’.
But what actually is ‘common sense’? Can it be defined or is it obvious? Or does the last sentence say that common sense is common sense? The legal profession can maybe provide clues such as….
‘The man on the Clapham omnibus – the ordinary or average man; the ‘man in the street’. British; an evocation of the extreme ordinariness (and hence representativeness) of a commuter travelling in by bus to work in central London from Clapham’. (1).
‘He is a reasonable man whose opinion will provide a yardstick of what the man on the street will think in a given situation’ (2).
The Urban Dictionary (11) has a revealing definition – ‘Common sense is what I think others should know’.
Maybe philosophers, courtesy of Wikipedia (12), can assist? Here are a few snippets:
- Descartes established the most common modern meaning, and its controversies, when he stated that everyone has a similar and sufficient amount of common sense (bon sens), but it is rarely used well.
- According to Aristotle’s understanding of perception, each of the five senses perceives one type of “perceptible” or “sensible” which is specific to it. For example, sight can see colour.
- Quintilian says it is better to send a boy to school than to have a private tutor for him at home; for if he is kept away from the herd (congressus) how will he ever learn thatsensuswhich we call communis? On the lowest level it means tact. In Horace, the man who talks to you when you obviously don’t want to talk lacks communis sensus.
- Schaeffer writes that “Descartes is the source of the most common meaning ofcommon sensetoday: practical judgment”.
- David Hume argues that common sense is entirely built up from shared experience and shared innate emotions, and therefore it is indeed imperfect as a basis for any attempt to know the truth or to make the best decision.
- Jeremy Bentham believes common sense teaches him what is right and wrong, meaning by common sense, a sense of some kind or other, which he says, is possessed by all mankind.
- Vico’s conception ofsensus communisis defined by him as “judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation, or the entire human race”. It presents common sense as something adolescents need to be trained in if they are not to break into odd and arrogant behaviour when adulthood is reached.
Of all of these, my personal favourite is Hume although Quintilian comes a close second. But Descartes has a point in that people have it but don’t use it well. Option anxiety looms large.
Readers, when they have opportunity, could further research this but may come to the conclusion that there are as many opinions as there are philosophers.
Jim Taylor (3) says that ‘Common sense is neither common nor sense’ and ‘if common sense was common, then most people wouldn’t make the kinds of decisions they do every day. People wouldn’t buy stuff they can’t afford. They wouldn’t smoke cigarettes or eat junk food. They wouldn’t gamble’. (Or commit acts of heroism? My addition).
Taylor adds that perhaps the biggest problem with common sense is that it falls prey to the clear limits of personal experience (Hume revisited).
And finally from Taylor, ‘Common sense is often used by people who don’t have the real knowledge, expertise, or direct experience to actually make sound judgements. Hardly helpful in making risky decisions, and the concept of common sense is sometimes used by persons to ‘prove’ that an opposing view is stupid.
As an aside to this latter point, ‘Common Sense’ is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies on the East Coast of the USA. In the recent UK referendum debate, there were arguments from both sides that the correct vote was common sense.
Interlude – Time for a bit of serious thesaurus-driven fun (7) with the synonyms logic, practicality, prudence, rationality, wisdom, experience, gumption, levelheadedness, wits and my top choice, horse sense. Why? Over to W.C.Fields – “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.”(8). Horse-sense is (9) ‘A robust form of common sense believed to be found in poorly educated but shrewd people…being a common-sense alternative to the high-falutin’ claptrap of what we would now call ‘men in suits’’.
Back to the plot…
Many risk control hierarchies have human factor controls at/near the bottom and accident investigators are urged to think again if human error is considered to be the sole cause. I cannot recall ever seeing common sense in any control hierarchy and since it appears to be related to knowledge possessed by individuals, its value is thus limited. We are human, we make mistakes.
Human behaviour is of great interest to both theoreticians and practitioners of H&S (OK, you can be both) and there is a mass of information as to why people behave as they do and also on how to change this behaviour. Some say that people make the best decision they can at any one time with the information presented to them, others argue that mistakes range between completely unintentional and very deliberate. It seems that whatever common sense is, it can be abandoned for many reasons. An example is quoted (10) ‘…the belief that they would not be injured because their experience and common sense would protect them…’ This would seem to indicate an entirely voluntary suspension of common sense but there are clearly occasions where pressure may be brought to bear on an individual to take the wrong decision.
Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow (4) states that ‘we are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. He also mentions the famous Müller-Lyer illusion – ‘now that you have measured the lines, you have a new belief: you know that the lines are equally long. If asked about their length, you will say what you know. But you still see the bottom line as longer. You have chosen to believe the measurement, but you cannot decide to see the lines as equal, although you know they are.’ How does this equate with the popular concept of common sense? Not very well?
The issue is, as I see it, that since we have all had different lives, our ‘sense’ varies. Several of the above commentators make the point that while there may be common sense, decisions are made which ignore its presence. Additionally, there is also the concept of ‘common knowledge’, that which a large proportion of a given population could be assumed to have. Could the two be connected in that the basis of a common sense decision is informed by common knowledge?
Is there then really much point in berating a person for ‘not using their common sense’? Or make statements such as ‘He’s got no common sense’?
I’ll leave the final words to Descartes (13) ‘Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.’
- Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin 2011, ISBN 978-1-846-14055-6, https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/56314/thinking-fast-and-slow/)
- 13. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/common-sense