Saying “Use Common Sense” Doesn’t Make Sense

One often hears from people giving advice the phrase “Use common sense”. The idea of the phrase is that there are specific instructions that one is unable to more closely detail about approach under certain conditions but for which one can be expected through their experience or intuition to naturally apply the correct approach, even with explicit suggestions not given. Here, I closely examine the instruction “Use common sense” and analyze the purpose of the statement, and suggest that, chances are, the statement “Use common sense” is rarely helpful advice.

Consider the cases where the advisee possesses common sense or does not possess common sense, however one defines common sense, which, chances are, in a probably uncommon way. One who already has common sense will be using it anyway, since that’s the implication of common sense: it’s what people are expected to already know to do naturally. There’s no reason to tell them to need to use common sense; they’re already going to do it.

On the other hand, consider people who do not have common sense. In that case, the statement “Use common sense” does not elucidate anything to them. Without further specifying what common sense entails, and thus completely voiding the need to label such instructions “common sense”, one without common sense is in no way helped by being told to exercise it.

Reflecting on when the statement is actually made in the real world, it is typically stated to remind people who actually know better, when they are at a good chance to act recklessly, that they should remember to watch when the situation spirals out of hand. But if a person knows better, then they have the ability to evaluate risks and know when a situation allows for silliness and when it’s more serious and thus important for them to actually apply their common sense. Once again, those possessing common sense would already apply it without comment and those without would remain unable to apply common sense after being informed of its importance.

Yet it feels like making the statement is still sometimes helpful. What causes this? All that it could be now is that the statement serves the purpose of stating that after a certain amount of guidelines, a point is reached at which one can be fairly assured that intuition, whether already existent or to be gained, is likely to do them better than dogmatic instruction-following from here forward. But that is all that the statement “Use common sense” accomplishes, and that is much less than is typically thought to be contained in the often-stated big words “Use common sense”. The statement is really much less helpful and useful than is commonly thought.


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