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Common Sense Ethics

Strengthening Intuitive-Based Decision Making

When faced with an ethical dilemma, how do you respond? Many people simply rely on common sense to reason through the conflict and decide on an appropriate course of action. Many common things are not easy to do and may requires efforts and skills. This is where ethical reasoning methods come in handy by: considering the consequences of one’s actions on stakeholders; evaluating stakeholder rights and our obligations to them; reflecting on intended actions and checking to see basic ethical principles have been followed, such as "First, do no harm" 

‘Common-sense ethics’ refers to the pre-theoretical moral judgments of ordinary people. Moral philosophers have taken different attitudes towards pre-theoretical judgments of ordinary people. For some they are the ‘facts’ which any successful moral theory must explain and justify, while for others the point of moral theory is to refine and improve them.

Common sense ethics as a specific kind of moral theory was developed in Scotland during the latter part of the 18th century to counter what its proponents saw as the moral skepticism of David Hume. Hume defended the skeptical position that human reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate our way through common life.  He is famous for the position that we cannot derive ought from is, the view that statements of moral obligation cannot simply be deduced from statements of fact. 

Thomas Reid argued that moral knowledge and the motives to abide by it are within reach of everyone. He and his followers believed that a plurality of basic moral self-evident moral principles is revealed in conscience to all mature moral agents.

Common-sense ethics relies on the five senses, as well as memory and reason, without the need to morally justify one’s position. This is because we have no other resources for making judgments, to call upon to justification of this reliance.

Henry Sidgwick argues that common sense rules cannot provide conclusive reasons for actions, because they all have exceptions and leave some issues unresolved. A first principle is needed to supplement them. It must be more than intuitively evident. It must, first, give deductively warranted assurance that a judgment is valid. So, common sense judgments depend for their own validity on some exceptionless and completely universal principle.

Second, the principles providing this assurance must enable us to systematize and complete our moral beliefs. The dependence and systemization arguments, Sidgwick holds, taken together, lead to a utilitarian principle. Unfortunately, they also warrant egoism. Practical reason thus seems to be at odds with itself.

Consider the following example taken from Phillipa Foot’s ‘Trolley Problem.’  

"There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. What would you do?"

Likely, the choice made would be based on System 1 thinking. This is our intuitive system of processing information: fast, automatic, effortless, and emotional decision processes. There is no time for System 2 thinking, which is slower, conscious, effortful, explicit, and a more reasoned decision process.

System 1 thinking is consistent with common-sense ethics. We might quickly gauge the harms and benefits of the alternative actions, but not in a systematic way. There is no time to do so.

Common sense ethics is influenced by the values we hold dear. We are taught never to kill so we may choose to let the trolley do the killing without our interference. However, it’s not so simple a decision because in ethics, we are taught to respect the rights of others. Who has a greater claim to life: the five-people tied on the tracks or the one who will be killed if we pull the lever. We may quickly deduce it’s five people. Five is greater than one. But, what if the one person is a world-renowned researcher who is on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease while the other five are escape convicts?

Voltaire said: "Common sense ethics is not so common." Our common-sense ethics becomes stronger the more we practice intuitive decision-making and gain knowledge from our experiences – a better way to quickly think through what is most important. Common-sense ethics strengthens with repetition because we gain wisdom from our experiences and are better able to decide quickly what the right thing to do is.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 17, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: