NOTE: I am finally reproducing my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series that ran in my previous blog, the now defunct "Random Notes", from December 28, 2011 to January 27, 2012. Please note that there are no entries for January 4 and January 12 through January 14 due to illness.
As I have done once before, this quote is not so much a quote from a specific individual, as it is a quote we have all heard over and over again, from person after person. And, in this case, even from people with whom I otherwise tend to agree. In fact, it is such a common quote, that I feel a bit uncomfortable calling it "stupid" as I am likely to insult almost every reader, as nearly everyone has used it at some time. But, when you really think about what this quote means, you will have to agree, it really is stupid.
And what is this quote?
You have to use common sense.Some of of those who have read my blog for a long time will be familiar with my earlier criticism of the entire concept of "common sense" ("The Lunacy of "Common Sense"", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur"), which is second only to "pragmatism" in my list of widely held beliefs which I would like to see disappear. ("The Problem of the Small Picture", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "Impractical Pragmatists") However, in this case, I will not rely upon those earlier essays on common sense, nor will I use my arguments against common sense in general. Instead, let us look at this concept and see what problems it creates.
The quote, as it is used most often, is as a justification for a general rule which has either been shown to be harmful in some specific cases, or else has been subjected to some sort of reductio ad absurdam, showing how the underlying principle leads to harmful consequences. In response to either of these arguments, frequently proponents will reply either "well, you can't take it to extremes" or else with the quote in question, the idea being that the rule is still somehow good, it just needs to be applied inconsistently.
And if we are honest, that is all this means. Rather than "you need to use common sense", the same results could be obtained by saying "only if you are consistent". After all, if a rule has been shown to rest upon a potentially dangerous premise, or to do harm in some cases, and this can somehow be ameliorated by common sense, that must mean that common sense amounts to applying the rule inconsistently. But, if that is the case, then almost any rule can be made valid by this principle. For example, "All dogs are named Rex." It is false as it stands, but if you use common sense and exclude all dogs not named Rex, it is a perfectly valid tool.
I admit, that is a bit of a silly example, but it is what this argument literally means. Perhaps an example would help.
I was thinking of this topic because I was considering a dangerous concept that arise sometimes, preventative detention. This is the concept that police can detain individuals in order to prevent the commission of crimes. The concept has arguments on both sides, some arguing that it is impossible to prove what someone is going to do, so any detention is inherently speculative, and opens the door to rampant abuse. Others argue that the police can be limited in when they can act, and thus can use this tool as an effective way to prevent crimes.
Obviously, at least I hope, I am opposed to preventative detention. I firmly believe an individual can only be excluded from society, and have any of his rights limited, once he has violated the rights of another*. In addition, it is impossible to tell if this type of detention is indeed working, as there is no way to know whether or not a crime would have been committed but for the detention. It is a system with tremendous potential for abuse.
However, sometimes those who argue in favor of the system will admit the potential for abuse, but then suggest it would work if we just "use common sense". However, that is an absurd argument. If a system can be abused, then it is a bad system. Telling us to use common sense is equivalent to saying "it won't be abused if the people using it don't abuse it." It sounds nice, but it is meaningless. Common sense is not a substitute for proper law.
And that is my main objection. Either a law is good or it isn't. It may not be as bad as another law, but if there is potential for abuse, or if it creates new problems, then it is bad. Applying common sense is just another band aid. And, worse, as I have argued before ("Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Cycle of Compassion", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything"), if we accept bad principles, then we accept the logical conclusions that follow. In other words, despite all the common sense in the world, if we accept a law based upon principles that go counter to our beliefs, then we will see the law drift in that direction no matter what we want to believe.
And that is why I find this statement so foolish. Yes, maybe a bad law can be made to work in some sense if applied inconsistently by well meaning and clever people. But that law is likely to also be applied by less clever people, by less ethical people, and by clever and ethical people who believe in consistency and thus apply it every time, and all of those cases will do harm. In addition, that law establishes a precedent, and, if we need common sense to make the law work, that means the precedent has some bad to it, maybe a lot, and thus we set the stage for worse laws in the future. And that is why I oppose this justification for bad or harmful principles.
* Actually, as I wrote before, rights are absolute, and an individual cannot ever give up his rights. However, an individual who violates the rights of another can be expelled from society, or even killed, to protect society. In most cases, those who commit crimes are given the option to voluntarily restrict their exercise of their rights to be allowed to reenter society. As the alternative would be execution for any and all felons (since exile is no longer possible in the modern world), it seems more merciful to allow this alternative. But we will have to discuss this topic in more detail later. First, because I need to elaborate upon it (and perhaps think about it more myself), and second it needs a lot more space to be clearly spelled out. Still, there is a small, but important difference between surrendering the ability to exercise one's rights and losing them.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/01/15.