Sunday, July 12, 2009

Post No. 126: Common Sense as a Way of Life

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

The most senior Fellow here at the Institute, the Laughingman, believes that Common Sense should be considered a way of life.

Most of us here respond to newsworthy events as situations of first impression, and find it necessary to absorb the facts, issues, and analyze the various possible positions over a relatively lengthy period of time. We then share our observations.

The Laughingman, on the other hand, spits out his Common Sense reactions like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. (Sometimes the speed with which he comes up with this stuff is a bit intimidating.)

His view is that in an effort to improve our world, we need simply have people think more about Personal Responsibility for their actions, and accept same for the results.

In our preceding Post No. 125, Something for Gov. Sanford to Consider: Parents Flying with Minor Children Should…, we explored whether an elected official should resign upon disclosure of his or her error in judgment, even after accepting responsibility for their conduct.

In that post, we used a riddle which had a motorist approaching three people at a bus stop during a horrendous storm. We asked which person should be picked up if the vehicle only had room for one more passenger.

Yesterday, we watched a movie on the USA Network. The movie, 16 Blocks, stars Bruce Willis and Mos Def. Willis is an aging, washed up, alcoholic police officer. He’s charged with transporting Def, a n’er-do-well witness scheduled to testify before the grand jury.

After someone attempts to kill Def shortly after Willis takes custody of him, he quickly realizes that his “fellow officers” want to ensure that Def never makes it to the grand jury, before its term expires. It is later revealed that Def was a witness to illegal police activity.

Instead of joining forces with his fellow officers, Willis ends up protecting Def to the end, even though it is against his personal interest. In fact, there is a protracted collection of scenes, where Willis’ former comrades pursue him and Def like Wile E. Coyote pursues the Road Runner. We later learn that Willis is one of the corrupt officers who Def would unknowingly implicate.

Throughout the movie, Def keeps posing to strangers our riddle about the three people at the bus stop. (One famed film critic once noted that Def’s incessant chatter and voice made fingernails on a blackboard sound like Alicia Keyes.)

At the end of the day, Def compliments and thanks Willis for “doing the right thing,” one of the Laughingman’s favorite lines. Willis decides to take the heat and focus away from Def, and volunteers to testify, thus implicating himself.

The Laughingman had the good fortune to learn his craft as an ad weasel under some of the best. He often cites Bill Bernbach, who ushered in the last great creative revolution, as having a unique approach to most problems. He claims that Bernbach frequently noted, "I've got a neat gimmick, let's tell the truth."

There are a couple of other sayings attributable to the Laughingman. In the realm of politics, he claims that, “If you own up to your own failings, you make the issue irrelevant... no political coercion can be applied to a man who insists on telling the truth....”

If one just examines the long list of politicians, from both sides of the aisle, and down the middle, who are experiencing 3rd degree burns from the white heat of the examination spotlight, in each instance, lies and deception can be found like corn flakes and milk outside of an infant’s bowl.

Many claim that there is no such thing as Common Sense, and even more claim that to the extent that it exists, it is not very common.

But doing the right thing is not some elusive concept, and it doesn’t require special talent, education, training, or resources.

As a general proposition, telling the truth reduces complications, and exponentially increases the probability that things will go well and that you will find, like Nirvana, Common Sense.

The Laughingman often says, “Doing the right thing is not rocket science.”

Just this weekend, it was revealed that the CIA may have maintained a special, secret program, which it did not disclose to Congress. It will undoubtedly be suggested by defenders of the non-disclosure that there was a legal loophole in the law justifying this tactic.

In the ether which is Personal Responsibility, the objective is not to show other people how clever you are, but that in most instances cleverness is but a temporary tactic; Common Sense, on the other hand, is a way of life….

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. There is something called lying by omission which may seem to be at work in the case of the unreported CIA program. If anyone appearing before a Congressional (or Senate) oversight committee was asked to provide all active programs and the program was omitted from the list then we may state unequivocally that the person lied. If, however, the program is not active then is it a lie to omit it? I am not so sure. Ethics do come into play, of course, but so does the issue of rampant leaks from "sources" within these committees. Should one side be open and honest and truthful without doubt while knowing the other will not hold a confidence?

    Common sense says you tell your friends your secrets. After all, they are your friends. But doesn't common sense say you don't reveal all of your secrets when you know your friends have a difficult time not relating them to your enemies?

    I think common sense is not so simple a concept as one might suspect.

  2. It's not a matter of lying or not lying, or of trust or distrust--it's a matter of law. Operative programs are to be reported to congress. Programs in the planning stages apparently fall into a gray area.
    Where does morality come into it? For me it comes into it at the point where the CIA doesn't want to report what it's doing because it knows what it is doing is illegal, inhumane, brutal, and wrong. Common sense often leads one astray, morally.

  3. Rodak wrote: "Where does morality come into it? For me it comes into it at the point where the CIA doesn't want to report what it's doing because it knows what it is doing is illegal, inhumane, brutal, and wrong. Common sense often leads one astray, morally."

    Rodak: We believe that you hit the nail on the head, squarely, when you said that the agency "knew" what it was doing was improper. That logic would also apply if it "suspected" that its conduct might be inappropriate, or that there was a "possibility" that its conduct was inappropriate, or they took actions to fit within the loophole to legitimize the otherwise illegal conduct.

    However, we disagree with you with respect to your suggestion that common sense often leads one astray morally. In each one of these cases outlined above, common sense would suggest that the illegal conduct not be pursued. And that's a good thing.

    There's a phrase often used in the legal world: "Steer far wide of the danger zone."

  4. In each one of these cases outlined above, common sense would suggest that the illegal conduct not be pursued.

    I don't think so. The problem with common sense is that it is, by defininition, situational and subjective. I can easily see where person for whom "security" is paramount would decide that it was only "common sense" to hide things from congressional committees that might (as Douglas points out) leak information that would put "security" in jeopardy. Morality, by contrast, is based upon objective standards. We can argue about the ways in which cultural differences objectify differing moral standards; but that moral standards are objective and not situational, in whatever culture, is a given. Common sense looks at individual choices with reference to outcomes. Morality looks at individual choices with reference to immutable standards; it judges the act without reference to the outcome.

  5. To put it another way, you can use "common sense" to help you get away with a crime; you cannot use morality to do so.


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