Common sense

Posted: June 19, 2016 in politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , ,

The first rule of Question Time is “don’t watch Question Time”. The second rule of Question Time is “don’t go on Twitter during Question Time”. Despite observing these rules assiduously I couldn’t help but hear about the key moment of this week’s EU referendum special. Seemingly channeling Michael Gove’s recent claim that the people of Britain “have had enough of experts“, a member of the Question Time audience attacked the Prime Minister for “relying on experts” to make his case for remaining in the European Union.

Imagine! Those dastardly experts with their insidious expertise – who would want to listen to them?

But perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. For a start, the audience member was actually making a quite different point to the one assumed by his appalled Twitter critics. If you click on the link above and take the time to listen to him he is actually arguing that the Prime Minister’s choice of expert – in this case the Governor of the Bank of England – has been proven wrong in the past. The man was engaging in critical thinking about the provenance of knowledge. No wonder he went down so badly on social media.

More broadly, I think the Leave campaign’s perceived rejection of expertise illuminates a key tension in our ideas about democracy. In this post I want to explore the idea of common sense, and consider its relationship to the EU referendum.

Political thinkers at least as far back as the ancient Greeks have tried to describe common sense, and it’s trickier than you might imagine.

Firstly, is it a sense? Aristotle thought it was at least related to the senses, since it is through the interplay of our senses that we experience the existence of other people. Later, some Scottish Enlightenment thinkers thought that the sympathy we feel for other people indicates a shared moral sense. So, maybe.

Secondly, is it common? Well, that depends on what you mean by common. It’s maybe not a common factor – think after all of dads throughout history who have bemoaned a lack of common sense in the conduct of their children, neighbours and elected representatives. We might instead consider common sense to mean something prevalent or widespread, rather than necessarily universal.

One of the most enduringly fascinating attempts to characterise common sense is found in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his book Du Contrat Social (Of The Social Contract), Rousseau argues that freedom means abiding by a law you have helped to make. If you design the law then your freedom is not reduced by subjecting yourself to it. For laws to be legitimate they must therefore reflect the views of the community subject to them, and in this book Rousseau describes the mechanisms through which this may be achieved.

Rousseau distinguishes between two possible versions of common sense. The first is called the Will of All. This is essentially the same as the outcome of a General Election in the UK – it is the sum of everyone’s individual opinions on a matter. Therefore the Will of All in last year’s General Election was  11.3m voting Conservative, 9.3m voting Labour, 3.9m voting UKIP and so on. The Will of All is the addition of individual preferences.

This is not Rousseau’s preferred measure of common sense, nor does he think it is an appropriate basis for decision-making. Instead, Rousseau introduces his notorious concept of the General Will (la volonté générale).

Where the Will of All is based on each voter indicating her own opinion on a political question, the General Will is based on a different question: the voter is asked what she thinks the community’s view is. The voter is therefore required to take herself out of her purely personal standpoint and indicate what she takes to be the consensus across her society. And if the voter thinks that the wider view is one thing, but it actually turns out to be something else, then she is mistaken about the General Will. There’s no shame in that – but the General Will carries the day whether or not (a) you knew what the general will was and (b) the general will matches your own personal preference.

To summarise: (i) laws are legitimate if they are made by the community; (ii) this is achieved by channeling the General Will of which you are part; (iii) if you disagree with the General Will then you are mistaken about what is right for your community; (iv) in this circumstance you are “forced to be free” since you didn’t know what was best for you.

It’s fair to say this concept has occasioned a fair bit of anxiety over the years. One critique concerns freedom: a number of Rousseau’s critics have detected the seeds of Jacobinism and fascism in the General Will, fearing it as a mechanism for forcing individuals to surrender to the collective. A second critique relates to how the decision-making mechanism would actually work: we might question whether asking citizens indirectly what they think other people think is as effective a means of finding this out as actually allowing them to state their own preferences. And a third critique relates to the status of individuals as moral agents: by elevating the General Will above individual opinion, Rousseau seems to suggest that people don’t know what’s best for them.

These three points conflict with the key assumptions that inform our contemporary democratic understanding.

Firstly, a key task of constitutional design going back as far as Polybius in 200 BCE is to guard against tyranny. The great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argues in his famous essay On Liberty that democracy without suitable checks and balances can lead to the ‘tyranny of the majority’, since a political majority can use its strength of numbers to oppress minority groups.

Secondly, under conditions of representative democracy we invest equal moral weight in each voter’s opinion. Central to liberalism is the idea of the individual as a self-originating source of moral claims. To require voters to abstract from their own opinions and instead try to estimate the general view of their community seems to downplay the moral worth of their individual perspectives.

Thirdly, the idea of being ‘forced to be free’ echoes vulgar Marxist claims that the workers have not fomented revolution because they suffer from ‘false consciousness’. (The reader may also be put in mind of more recent nationalist and socialist variations on this theme). This view presumes that political activity must be informed by a certain worldview or level of understanding, rather than being open to all by virtue of our humanity. But the electorate is always right not because its decisions match an external quality benchmark, but because it is invested with the moral authority to decide what is right.

These debates about Rousseau can help us understand the roles of common sense and of expertise in politics, and in turn help us make sense of the EU referendum. (Indeed, Professor Michael Brown argued in a recent lecture that you can take the temperature of the age by measuring the acceptability or otherwise of Rousseau’s ideas).

Taking common sense first, J.S. Mill is surely correct that the prevailing view of a community has the potential to be oppressive to minorities within it. It is not difficult to think of prominent political figures today who appeal to plain common sense as the basis for repressive and illiberal policies.

Secondly, it is unclear what mechanisms we would use to establish a community’s common sense view on an issue. Democratic elections in representative systems are effective in populating legislatures and provide a mandate to the executive arm of government to enact a legislative programme – but it’s a stretch to argue that winning a plurality of votes in a General Election is the same thing as establishing the common view on every detail of policy.

At the same time, it would be a strange sort of democracy that found no place for the popular will at all. Rousseau is surely right that the legitimacy of our laws must rest in some way on the assent of the community. I’ve not been entirely fair to him in the way I’ve presented his ideas up to now, so I’ll now add a crucial detail to his argument. For Rousseau the size of a political community is of critical importance, and he was clear that the idea of the General Will would apply to and only be identifiable within small and fairly homogeneous communities. He didn’t anticipate much disagreement over the General Will because he visualised small communities coming together under the oak tree to make decisions on the basis of broad mutual familiarity and shared interests. Our modern, pluralistic mass societies clearly do not resemble Rousseau’s city state idyll, so the question arises about how social solidarity can be (a) generated and (b) channelled into our politics.

Turning to the place of the expert in politics, it must be remembered at all times that there can be no place for experts in political elections – because the criterion for having a legitimate view in democratic politics is simply being eligible to vote. Our democracy is premised on the equal worth of all citizens and the moral equality of all votes. It’s worth noting at this point that one of JS Mill’s suggestions for resolving the issue of the tyranny of the majority was to give extra votes to university graduates! (Just imagine what Michael Gove would make of that). Mill made the mistake of assuming the purpose of elections is to reach an intellectually informed position. It’s not – elections are about including and reflecting the views of the electorate.

It has seemed to me that the Remain side of the referendum has grown increasingly supercilious as the campaign has progressed, tutting and shaking its metaphorical head at the stupid Leave voters who won’t be swayed by their finely honed arguments. Stop getting the referendum wrong! But politics isn’t like engineering – my politics degree doesn’t make me right about politics, but an engineer will be more right than I will about how to stop a bridge falling down. In this sense it is possible to argue that the Leave campaign’s rejection of expertise is not entirely unfair.



And yet, and yet… Clearly, expertise is useful, and has an influence. Think for example about the hole in the Ozone layer. The climate scientists who discovered the Ozone hole in the mid-1980s were no doubt referred to as ‘boffins’ in the press, and ignored for a while – but their research findings prompted a huge cultural shift in the public understanding of climate change. Very quickly it became a matter of common sense that CFCs should be banned.

So common sense is dynamic, and the General Will can change.

It may be argued that a key task of public education – and indeed of progressive legislation – is to influence the common view on political matters. The Leave campaign has therefore attempted to discredit expert opinion in order to present the community’s perceived anti-EU common sense view as something natural and unchanging. It’s clearly nothing of the sort.

And as for the referendum itself, I’m not sure it has done anyone much good. If Rousseau is correct that the General Will can only really be established in small face-to-face societies marked by shared interests, it seems unlikely that the EU referendum will produce a consensus. Almost by definition in fact, a society that is being asked a question like the one we’ll answer on Thursday would appear lacking in solidarity or shared values. Far from enshrining the settled view of the populace, this referendum is an instrument of rupture in an entropic political culture.

It therefore seems sensible be skeptical about political appeals to both common sense and expertise alike.

But what do I know?



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