On Common Sense: Ethics and Race

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By Tiberiu Dianu


A while ago, one of my readers asked me why our first African-American (currently, former) president could not have been someone like Condoleezza Rice or Herman Cain. And I would add: Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, Ben Carson, Allen West, and others. Obviously, the answer cannot be found in race, since this is the constant element. The variable element is the code of ethical values, which transcends the color line. Indeed, how come other people belonging to the same race are not alike? While their “texture” (physicality) may look identical, their “design” (morality) can be radically different.

In my first year at law school, when I was thinking about myself like the God’s gift on Earth Millennial, when my process of thinking was not so coagulated, and my philosophy about life was still in the making, I discovered in a legal textbook the notion of “common sense.” The book was not in English, and in many European languages the term translates with “good sense,” implying some sort of combination between naturalness and wisdom. English itself offers us several meanings, involving education and reasoning.

I realized soon why a term like “common sense” was put in a freshman year legal textbook. Because I had to learn early why legal principles have to be durable and stand the test of time. Because the natural rationale they embody – a basic awareness and the ability to judge — are shared naturally by people, without even wondering why, and that is precisely why good laws survive longer than bad laws. Because the former have common sense, while the latter do not (so much).

Aristotle interpreted common sense (koine aisthesis) as the capability of soul (he proposed the term psyche) to enable individual senses to perceive the features of physical things (by cooperating with basic sensory perceptions and human rational thinking).

The Roman interpretation of the term (sensus communis) describes natural human sensitivity for other humans and the community. This was developed from the Greek Stoic concept of ethical virtue, influenced by Aristotle. The Romans focused on the dual role of individual perception and shared communal understanding.

Descartes tried to replace common (good) sense with mathematical reasoning and placed this faculty in the brain (not in the soul or heart, like Aristotle). Hobbes and Spinoza applied the Cartesian approach to political philosophy, but stressed out the importance of the Roman meaning of common sense, in a humanist interpretation of it. This meant refocusing on the sense of community, which the Romans understood as part of common sense.

Ethics (from the Greek ethos,  “custom, habit”), as a “humanist” common sense, was later defined as moral philosophy that involves systematizing concepts of right and wrong conduct.

Thus, the more common sense a value incorporates, the longer it stands the test of time. This is valid for both moral (ethical), and legal principles and values. Too many times we have seen an avalanche of “new values and principles” that some people try so hard to manufacture, wrap, and sell as “moral” and “legal.” What disturbs me is that, in spite of their novelty, they are given the aura of “old sacrosanct” rules, although nobody noticed them a few decades ago. Why? Because they did not exist! Because they were invented out of the blue by activists with agendas. And because they were too “new” on the market, they had to be “labeled,” and “sold,” and “marketed” as “good old” stuff.

Too much theory? Let me take some typical examples, where, as it always happens, one is forced to swallow a flawed premise, and then “guided to follow” that given premise to the final goal desired by the people with no (or little) common sense (the typical liberals). I will leave the old values unquoted, and quote the new values.

Here I go: for family – “same-sex” marriage.  First of all, “same-sex” is not a human rights issue, it is a biological condition. But because people with no extra pecuniary benefits want it on their agenda, they “market” it.

Here is another one: for justice – “social” justice. Justice is not “social,” it is equal. Period. But, hey, some people with legal problems and agenda issues need to be accommodated, so they “market” this one, too.

Another one: for immigration – illegal immigrants are “Americans” too. So, you broke the law, and then you come and ask for rights. Sorry, we cannot help you, the law prevents us to do that. The old Roman law maxim reads: “Nemo auditur propriam turpitudinem allegans,” namely: no one can be heard to invoke his own turpitude. This is a legal issue, not a “humanitarian” problem. Case in point: the illegal immigrant pregnant woman who gives birth in the United States and then claims American citizenship for her newborn baby. But people with agenda have this backwards.

And finally: for labor issues and taxes – the “fair” share. Who knows how much is “fair”? Does the president know? Does he pull a number from the magician hat? Oh, I got it, the people with agenda know better. So they will “market” this one, too.

I will stop here. Each of the issues presented above deserve many more separate pages of essays and articles, but I am ready to deliver. So, then, I wonder, where is the “shared communal understanding,” where is the “reasoning,” where are the “systematized concepts of right and wrong”?

In 1776, in the advent of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine was publishing his famous Common Sense pamphlet. There, he advocated, with a persuasive yet impassioned tone, that independence — the ideal for a nation in the making like America of those years — was connected with a set of moral and religious beliefs. That set of beliefs was important to outline a specific American identity.

I do think the time has come to start talking again, more often and much louder, about common sense. I do think the time has come to start thinking again about Independence. A second Independence, of the spirit, the one which frees our souls from political correctness and all these “new coined” terms. We have been invaded, while asleep, by all these “body snatchers,” which replace our good old common sense values of moral and religious beliefs with exact physical copies and modified content. Same “texture,” but a different “design.”

I do think that nowadays we should talk more about common sense. Many of us seem to have lost it, together with our old code of principles and values. And we tend to substitute it with a “new” code, but keeping good old common sense terms in place, as decoys. This is called “interpretation” (did you hear me, Supreme Court?).

One day, while returning my check-out items to my neighborhood public library, a good old common-sense man (and I mean that literally) at the front desk, who happened to be of color, handed me a page with two short typed paragraphs. The first paragraph said: “1944: 18 year olds storm the beach of Normandy into almost certain death” (“there were my greatest generation!” rejoiced I), and below: “2016: 18 year olds need a safe place because words hurt their feelings” (“oh, my baby Millennials!” I sighed). I thanked my good old common sense man for the (written) words of wisdom. Then I started to think about the say: “you are an anarchist at 17, socialist at 20, liberal at 30, and become a conservative at 40.”There is nothing more pathetic than an old liberal (did you hear me, Bernie?, are you listening, Madonna?). Liberals have lost the meaning of common sense. A while ago, it was just sad. Now, it becomes dangerous.

Returning to my reader’s original question, I would answer with a Sidney Poitier’s famous line from the 1967 evergreen classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”(see segment from 1:50 to 2:25): “But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” Cain, Carson, Keyes, Thomas, Rice, and West do know this. Obama did not.


TIBERIU DIANU has published several books and a host of articles in law, politics, and post-communist societies. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC and can be followed on MEDIUM. https://medium.com/@tdianu.

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