The above image reads common sense, that is common sense. Or is it?

To do the rational thing always seems a very beneficial course to take. To be sensible is often rewarding in the long run and thus so strongly advocated.  Still, there seems to be so much irrationality and more importantly lack of sensibility around. I am not referring to the classical debate between spontaneity and calculated thought; I am more interested in the deviation from common sense. Common sense and rationality are two different concepts; while the former has the smell of averages about it the latter seems more absolute.

The sense that is common, the current understanding of an acceptable societal average of rationality: that to me is common sense. So prior to the Renaissance in the dark ages, it was probably common sense to assume that defecating in public wasn’t a problem and the Sun went around the Earth.  While an information deficit may have precipitated that particular sense, the point about the relativity of common sense is apparent. What we end up needing in most cases is absolute rationality. Take your pick from any scenario of extreme prejudice, display of self destructive behavior or extreme narrow mindedness. What might have appeared as lack of common sense, when defined as I just did may be more visible as a deficiency of general rationality.

Common sense is a function of one’s idea of society. As there is no well defined parameter of sensibility, the perception of what shall pass off as reasonable among one’s peers is often what is chosen.  There is no need for one to comply with the idea of this common reasonableness and therein lies the choice of general rationality. While there is the chance of a person discovering what is absolutely the rational thing to do irrespective of what those who surround him or her think, compliance too becomes a rational act due to the resulting external harmony.

If you try to list the determinants of the definition of what is common sense you might find yourself facing the following:
Age, Gender, Geography, Culture, Upbringing, Experience, Education, Peers, Mental Capacity and Circumstance.

While these factors may influence one’s interpretation of what is reasonable there is no absolute one to one mapping of the degree of reasonability to them. If you were to consider a multi-dimensional coordinate system where each of the above mentioned attributes are represented as a dimension then a point on this system would represent a person. A person who could be distinctly identifiable across human history at a given point in time. The basic idea that no two humans are alike would be validated along with the idea that the same human holds different views and states in a single lifetime. Given this uniqueness, if you look at the proximity of different people (points) to any given point, across many planes you would find his or her peers. These would then define the sample space against which common sense shall be defined.

To exemplify the possible difference between what is perceived as rational; consider two different generations, yours and that of your parents. There is going to be the obvious difference between the values of the parameters: age, experience, upbringing, mental capacity, peers and circumstance. Other parameters may differ too, but these can be taken for granted. If the common sensibility of your parents and their peers was plotted (if that were possible) you’d get an average value different from your own. In fact to put it more obviously, what seems rational and obvious to that group has a low probability of being so with you unless your peers are these too. When your parents look at defining common sense, their points of peer reference shall be people who they know personally or see represented as normal across various media. The more realistic parents would try to adjust this set to allow for the inclusion of the people who are more likely to be your peers. There is the obvious risk of a selection bias in terms of aspiration versus reality. In either case there is no denying the difference in sensibilities.  This is because, common sense from your parents point of view becomes:


From your point of view the equation changes to


It is thus not difficult to see how the change in any of the mentioned factors shall influence the idea of common sense. ‘n’ is the size of perceived influencers, the variation in thus is determinant to the degree of influence an opposing party’s way of thinking has on the current’s idea of common sense. We can further the equations mentioned to incorporate weights, making the influence dependent on time of exposure and personal influence of the peer too. But it is clear that the more people you consider, the larger the risk of the dilution of the parent’s contribution to the child’s common sense. But the inclusion of a large population may also lead to the variation of thought and thus a chance of people like minded as the other party.

Why is such a realization important? Whenever you are in a situation where the pigheadedness of the individual in front of you is on the verge of sparking homicidal tendencies, perhaps it would be easier to appreciate the differences in your life experiences. While the urge to be amazed by the apparent stupidity of someone might not go away, the relativity of rationality may explain its cause.


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