April 1st 2020
Have you heard about the Darwin Awards? You might enjoy checking them out. The awards are given to individuals for outstanding achievement in improving the gene pool "by eliminating themselves from the human race in an obviously stupid way."
Currently at the top of the list for 2019 is a pilot whose 10,000 hours of flight time could not make up for a more fundamental deficit: "Full of experience, empty of common sense, Darwin Award Winner for good and sufficient cause: Pilot Patrick! We salute you."
There is more about Patrick's award-winning achievement farther on, but let's begin by noting that the Darwin Awards are all about common sense, or, rather, the lack of it. Nominees "are self-selected examples of the dangers inherent in a lack of common sense, and all human races, cultures, and socioeconomic groups are eligible to compete."
As I have written elsewhere, perhaps we understand common sense best when we consider its absence. Examples of the lack of common sense are known to all of us, but the Darwin Awards offer examples worthy of special notice. In their words, "the Darwin Awards are macabre tales that make us laugh while instructing us in the laws of common sense."
The laws of common sense are like the air we breathe: they are all around us, and we can't live without them but we tend not to notice them when things are going smoothly. Because we tend not to notice them, these laws are rarely stated - but they are starkly revealed to us whenever anyone goes against common sense.
Another reason the laws of common sense are rarely made explicit is that they are for all practical purposes essentially infinite in number. The law pilot Patrick reminds us of could be stated like this: "Pilots: do not attempt a take-off with aviation fuel sloshing around your feet in the cockpit." Violating that commonsense law can, obviously, be fatal, but as desperately as Patrick needed it, who would have thought it needed to be made explicit?
What we are getting at when we speak of common sense is a power of knowing. Those who are dismissive of common sense are thinking of it merely as the collective opinions of the crowd, but that is not what common sense is. Let's turn to Roget's Thesaurus for help here. These are the entries for common sense: "good sense, savvy, sound judgment, native intelligence, horse sense, prudence, acumen, levelheadedness, instinct, wisdom, experience."
Roget's is a great list, but two selections need a bit of amplification. "Experience" has to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no doubt that we need experience to acquire the common sense we must have, but experience alone is not enough. Extracting the value from our experience is up to us. Patrick had 52 years of living on Planet Earth and 10,000 hours of flight time - plenty of experience, but that experience could not make up for his basic lack of common sense.
As for "instinct," the problem is that common sense is not inborn like, for example, the salmons' instinct to return to their spawning grounds. We have common sense only if we acquire it from our experience. However, it is like instinct in this way: by it we know things we have not been taught. A person of ordinary common sense with no flight training knows without learning a rule about it that aviation fuel sloshing around in the cockpit is an excellent reason not to attempt a take-off. Common sense enables us to operate by a vast array of commonsense laws, an array that is in its very nature inexhaustible.
And if we, like Patrick, happen to violate one of those laws, we suffer the inevitable, the built-in, consequences - as our friends at the Darwin Awards are keen to remind us.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of Reclaiming Sense Nation: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World and Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea. Both are published by Encounter Books.