The phrase “common sense” means native good judgment and is derived from the Greek koinē aesthēsis which refers to the total perception of the five senses. If you have senses, then those of you who read this have, potentially anyway, as much common sense as anybody else. The problem lies in the execution. Like any other gift, native good judgment must be exercised. Over my lifetime, my mother and father constantly challenged me and my siblings to use good common sense, and it’s never been easy considering the world we live in. I never forgot those simple edicts that came from my parents: “If you eat all that Halloween candy, you will get sick”; “If you wait until the last-minute to study, you probably won’t really understand the material and not do well on the test”; “If you treat your siblings like crap, crap is what you will get in return.”; “The most important lessons always contain some form of difficulty.” Those pearls of wisdom created a strong base for much of my decision-making as an adult, (that and scoring the 97th percentile in an aptitude test measuring common sense…which I’ve bragged about before). Common sense should also never be confused with intelligence-it is not the same thing. Some of the most intelligent people I know actually seem to be lacking in common sense. Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, they really should give diplomas for that kind of smarts. The scarecrow discovered that the only way to increase the wisdom of one’s native good judgment is not by always doing what one is told, but by figuring it out on ones own and actually taking personal responsibility for those choices that go awry.
Taking personal responsibility for the choices one makes and developing common sense are intimately connected. Unfortunately one can’t develop without the other. Based on what I observe in the world at large, be it politics or religion, common sense is on hiatus. It has simply left the building. And that is the root of much my of my anger and sadness about the world today.
While in college, I had the chance to study and to meet Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor at Harvard University who was well-known for his theory of moral development. In his theory, there are three levels of moral development with two stages within each level. Kohlberg also maintained that individuals could only progress through these stages one at a time, in order, without jumping any stage. The first level, termed “pre-conventional” is generally found in elementary school age children. At stage 1, (ages 1-5) children behave according to socially acceptable norms created by an authority figure. Obedience is compelled by threat of punishment. At stage 2, (ages 5-10) right behavior means acting in one’s own interest, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” The next level, “conventional,” is where most of society lies. Beginning with stage 3 (ages 8-16) right choices are based on being a “good boy/girl or doing what will gain the approval of important others such as parents, teachers or friends. Stage 4 (ages 16 and above and if they reach it, where most adults remain) is defined by abiding the law and fulfilling one’s obligation of duty. In this stage, leaders are assumed to be right and individuals adopt social rules without considering the underlying ethical principles involved. People who break rules, deserved to be punished.
What I found most disturbing was Kohlberg’s conclusion that only about 20-25% of today’s adults (most in their late twenties) ever reach the last level of moral development, labeled “post-conventional.” In stage 5, people do recognize the underlying moral principles served by laws, and if a law no longer serves a good purpose, they actively work to change it through legal and democratic means. Respect for the law and a sense of obligation to live by the rules is still important, but an individual uses only legally acceptable means to make changes. Less than 1% of adults ever make a stage 6 moral decision. Kohlberg believed, theoretically, that civil disobedience was often how a stage 6 moral decision distinguished itself. In this instance, breaking a law in defense of an individual right can be justified. Martin Luther King, for example, argued that laws are only valid insofar as they are grounded in justice, and that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws and accept whatever consequences may come.
It is the kind of strength of conscience that defines Kohlberg’s sixth level that led me to conclude that developing one’s native good judgment is a necessary step in reaching the latter stages of moral development. It is by exercising and honing one’s native good judgment that acts as a moral compass in not only determining what rules we are going to live by, but gives an individual the internal fortitude and certainty to actually live by them.
In the Judeo/Christian tradition, we are taught that human beings are created in the image of God so the obvious conclusion is that we should have a great deal of faith in our native good judgment. If we are going to continue to evolve as human beings it doesn’t make sense to think that by questioning cultural rules we would encourage anarchy, rather, it should encourage just the exact opposite. It is often through questioning that truth itself becomes clearer and that clarity will ultimately shed light on what rules are working in each individual life. Of course any challenge to these rules most likely leads to conflict but, it was and still is from this kind of vantage point that I make most decisions to co-direct my destiny.
As I mentioned before, exercising the senses to develop that inherent native good judgment is a must. Lack of use weakens our ability to use them and leaves one vulnerable to outside influences. Of course, there are many reasons that all of us have, at times, chosen to disregard what we know to be true, subjecting ourselves to a whole other set of unhealthy rules. Catholic school taught me that they were the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. There are a host of others, to be sure, but these seven are as good as any. Knowing what rules serve a higher purpose doesn’t mean that I was always capable of listening to that inner voice and adhering to them—which is normal because sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes. Note the distinction between discovering what rules are good to follow and actually choosing to follow them; it is very important. Obviously, the proof is in what kind of choices we have made in our lives thus far and the people who influence us on a daily basis. However, the more adept we become at using native good judgment, the more difficult it becomes to fall prey to those deadly sins.
It would be inaccurate to assume that “proof” of using native good judgment will always result in being labeled “good” by society. In thinking of my own childhood a little poem comes to mind: “When I was good, I was very, very good and when I was bad I was clueless.” The ditty needed changing because sometimes challenging the rules means embracing the willingness to accept judgment as being bad. Being labeled “naughty” by some of my teachers perhaps was the inevitable result of not behaving as little girls should, meaning I always spoke my mind and never stopped barraging teachers with questions about things that were difficult to wrap my young brain around. Mind you, I never wanted to be bad; being arbitrary just didn’t come naturally. All I wanted to know, if I was expected to act a certain way, was the reason why. Perhaps one of the results of questioning the validity of the rules we follow is to turn up the volume on those innate sensibilities. So, what does this all mean in practical terms? Stay tuned…