How Conservatism Lost Common Sense

“Trust the science”—that hackneyed mantra propounded by Dr. Anthony Fauci—has turned out to be the cry of anti-intellectualism. If we need studies to tell us everything, then we do not really know anything, and the only arguments available to us are arguments from authority. 

We should be able to know some things simply by using common sense. Unfortunately, however, common sense has many enemies, and Fauci is but one. Both sides today—conservatives included—assume that the key assertions of our time must be “proven” or “disproven” by scientific studies: Women have different interests and priorities than men; Conservatives are censored by social media companies more frequently than liberals; Systemic racism plagues America; Abortion is bad for society; Men who were born in the wrong body can be happy if they cut off their genitalia.

Common sense, however, provides an adequate standard for evaluating all such assertions.

Contemporary debates, as Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue, are “shrill and interminable.” No one seems capable of finding common ground, therefore debates never reach a terminus. The pattern is common: the left-winger cites a study, the right-winger counters with his own study, and neither convinces the other. 

Studies are not needed to explain why there are more male engineers or female homemakers, just as studies are not required to explain why pet owners play fetch with their dogs and not with their cats. It’s not discrimination; they are just socially different.  

The assertion that right-wingers are disproportionately censored on social media doesn’t require a study to be proven. It is enough to point out that the most silenced politician on social media is Donald Trump. 

Systemic racism doesn’t need a study to be disproven. When Benjamin Netanyahu defends Israel from the accusation of apartheid, he does not cite studies; rather, he wisely points out that Palestinians serve openly in the Knesset. Likewise, racial minorities serve openly in all three branches of the American government—see the vice president, for instance.

Pro-lifers now boast that “pro-life is pro-science”—as if we needed scientific studies to inform us that abortion is nothing more than the killing of one’s own child in the womb. On the contrary, it is entirely unnecessary to debate studies on the happiness of women who procure abortions. Personal experience is irrelevant; common experience informs us that murdering one’s own child violates the natural order of the family. 

The debate on whether men can find happiness by severing their reproductive organs should not boil down to competing studies. The assertion does not accord with the common lived experience of men. 

This modern unwillingness to cite a common experience (or common sense), according to MacIntyre, has its roots in modern philosophy. 

The pre-Enlightenment understanding of “experience” meant something very different from today’s obsession with the“trans experience” or the “black experience,” or even the “woman in the workplace experience.” The classical thinkers were concerned with events that the common ruck of men could sense. According to MacIntyre, experience entailed “the act of putting something to the test or trial.” It involved comparing “seems to me” with “is in fact.” 

Experience meant evaluation by a standard outside of all parties to the discussion but able to be apprehended by all—in other words, the opposite of the narrowly subjective “experiences” celebrated by today’s identity politics

Consider two men seated indoors arguing about the weather outdoors. They don’t need a meteorologist. They don’t need to consider someone’s personal experience. If the two would simply step outside, they could share an experience that would bring the argument to a terminus. 

But modern thinkers created a new notion of experience, rooted in a conception of “the autonomous self.” They insisted, “there is to be nothing beyond my experience for me to compare my experience with, so that the contrast between ‘seems to me’ and ‘is in fact’ can never be formulated.” This changed public discourse because, without an objective standard outside of all parties, all arguments become appeals to authority. 

Conservatives used to appeal to a common tradition, a common heritage, a common moral order. They would show how radical, progressive reforms did not accord with the traditions of the American people or with the natural order—what St. John called logos and what G.K. Chesterton called the “Divine Reason.” 

But in place of the man in the cassock, today’s young conservatives kneel before the man in the lab coat. For example, conservative commentator Steven Crowder fell down the empirical science rabbit hole when debating genital mutilation with trans activist Julie Rei Goldstein. Both cited studies and responded amiably, but the debate went nowhere. Ben Shapiro similarly takes on the issue by citing studies on the trans suicide rate

These young conservatives are well-read and intelligent, which makes them fine debaters. But, if they accept the modern dogma that clinical trials and quantitative experiments are the only source of knowledge, they will lose something more important than an argument. Science is a fine thing, but blind faith in studies stops thought and deprives us of common sense.


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About John Howting

John Howting manages customer relations for Intellectual Takeout and Chronicles magazine.

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