It is astonishing that so simple a truth should ever have had an adversary; and it is one, among the multitude of proofs, how apt a spirit of ill-informed jealousy, or of too great abstraction and refinement, is to lead men astray from the plainest truths of reason and conviction.
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 12
The central argument Hamilton advances in Federalist No. 12 is that a strong central government will promote commerce, which will in turn promote “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.” Hamilton was writing in the early stage of capitalism, so he intriguingly sees commerce as an unquestioned good. That’s not surprising. But he also has no problem pairing “avarice” and “enterprise” as equally good. That’s a little startling to modern readers, even serious capitalists, which points to how often arguments beyond question in one context, a historical era or culture, might seem absurd in another.
This is both the appeal and limitation of common sense as a mode of argument. A truth might appear to be “so simple” that it “astonishing” that anyone would have the gall to question it. To Hamilton’s credit (and the credit of his century), he knew he had to do more than say “it’s common sense.” He knew he also had to present more substantial arguments. And he did.
This not always true in our time, so it would benefit us to understand what is at work with the “common sense” argument.
In The New Rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca write: “Common sense admits the existence of unquestioned and unquestionable truths; it admits that certain rules are ‘beyond discussion,’ and that certain suggestions ‘do not deserve discussion.’” In other words, when you make a claim and you say that it is “common sense,” you are saying this is so obvious that I don’t even need to support it with data or facts and, if you question it, . . . well, then, you’re just stupid.
Common sense arguments typically rely on cultural norms, but the application of these norms is not as simple as we might first suspect. We might say that it is common sense to get out of the rain (more convincing in Detroit in the middle of winter than in San Antonio in the middle of summer), or that it is common sense to buy life insurance (more true if you have a spouse and young children than if you are seventy without any family). When common sense emerges from ideology, it becomes even more murky. Some people think it is common sense to say that lowering taxes will create jobs or anyone who works hard in America can make it.
And then there’s the so-called Muslim ban, which was shut down by so-called judges. Here is President Trump’s justification from way back in June, 2016: “You know, I hate the concept of profiling. But we have to start using common sense, and we have to use, you know, we have to use our heads . . . we really have to look at profiling. We have to look at it seriously.”
The interesting thing about common sense arguments is you don’t even need fake news or alternative facts to back them up. They are self-sufficient and hermetically sealed, impervious to counter attacks.
The common sense argument can be an extension of power, like saying, “Because I said so. So there. Shut up, you moron.” We are going to hear a lot of common sense in the next four years.
Here is what we need to remember: If the common sense argument is self-evidently true and beyond question, as it claims itself to be, it is true for a limited segment of the world and a narrow band of history. We need to ask ourselves two questions: Is this how we want the world to view us? Is this how we want history to view us?
Consult http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org for background and texts relating to The Federalist Papers.
I also invite your to read Homo Academicus, my serial novel, which is being published at http://www.homoacademicus.us.