Coaching Common Sense

— In Ed Feser’s interesting but rather overwrought dissertation on the academic left, we get this defense of common sense:

Now where phenomena remote from everyday human experience are concerned — the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms, and so forth — it is perhaps not surprising that human beings should for long periods of time have gotten things wrong. But where everyday matters are concerned — where opinions touch on human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction — it is very likely that they would not, in general, get things wrong. Biological and cultural evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before too long be weeded out. The details of why this is so need not concern us here — they comprise the conservative justification of tradition and common sense associated most closely with Burke and Hayek, which I have defended elsewhere. Suffice it for present purposes to note that there are powerful reasons to be skeptical of the skepticism about commonsense and traditional attitudes that so permeates modern intellectual life.

I wonder what Feser could possibly be thinking here. Take a random sample of the socially prevalent beliefs about the correct principles of social interaction from the set of human cultures across time and space. We can even limit ourselves to those societies that persisted for some considerable amount of time. My bet is that most of these societies were governed by principles of social interaction that Feser would find… questionable. Exotic patterns of sexual and family relations, bloody competition for social status, approval of the murder of out-group people, etc. Conservative Hayekians, like Feser, badly overestimate the efficacy of cultural evolution in eliminating awful social systems. Because we don’t now live in small bands in conditions of irremediable scarcity half-naked on the savanna, it is very likely that we WOULD, in general, get things wrong about ordinary social interaction. The principles of mutually advantageous coordination that I believe must govern a good society are just about as obscure and counterintuitive as the principles that govern the behavior of atoms. Hayek himself recognized the highly counterintuitive nature of spontaneous orders, and recognized our natural but incredibly dangerous disposition to think of the extended order in terms of the family or tribe. Consider the prevalence of atrociously bad thinking about “offshoring.” Most people are intellectually crippled by a zero-sum tribalism, which comes naturally, if anything does, and strikes everyone as “common sense” unless you’ve been coached out of it by economists.

Even if Feser is talking about more mundane social interaction, there is still plenty of reason to belief that we make systematic errors about out own and others’ motivations, intentions, beliefs, and so on. So I disagree with Feser. I think that the major goal of education should be to break down some parts of common sense, and then to rebuild it so that our intuitions about cases better reflect the reality of things. This is why I think everybody should be trained to some degree in logic, statistics, and economics, and beginning at a much earlier age.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center