The idea of the common good has been making a comeback in our political discourse. While the left is embroiled in debates over which interest group should be given the keys to political power, small enclaves on the right are rediscovering the common good as an end of political life.
Although this project has met cries of Leninism and collectivism, reorienting our politics around the common good is undoubtedly a healthy impulse. The belief that politics exists to secure the good of the nation as a whole, after all, is a return to the way Americans used to think and talk about politics.
In Federalist 10 Publius called “the public good,” or common good, one of the “great object[s] to which our inquiries are directed.” The Anti-Federalist Brutus wrote in his second letter that the “common good…is the end of civil government.” Although vast differences existed between the two sides on the question of ratifying the Constitution, they both agreed that the purpose of politics was to secure the common good of the nation.
What has gone unaddressed by proponents of the modern common good project is a crucial prerequisite: the metaphysical ground upon which the common good is based. In a new book Robert Curry, a member of the Claremont Institute’s board of directors, begins to fill in this gap.
Contact With Reality
In Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth In A Post-Truth World, Curry examines and defends the pre-political understanding of reality accessible to all human beings, which he calls common sense. The book’s goal is “to restore a trust in common sense and an understanding of its crucial role in our lives.”
This book is a continuation of Curry’s 2015 work, Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea, where he explored “the thinking of the American Founders” and “the pattern of ideas” connecting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While the earlier book staved off challenges to the American Founders’ handiwork, Curry’s aim now is to answer the challenge to the “foundation of the founding.”
Drawing from cultural titans such as Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Isiah Berlin, and Albert Einstein, Curry explores the philosophy of common-sense realism that suffuses our founding documents. As Curry argues, common sense is not “the collective opinions of the crowd.” Rather, it is “the shared understanding of the way things really are.” Common sense is “the basis of all human knowledge,” without which human language would be impossible.
Curry cites an amusing story involving Abraham Lincoln to illustrate the contours of his argument. Lincoln once asked, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs would a dog have?” While a New York Times op-ed writer might say five, the correct answer is four because, as Lincoln stated, “even if you call it a leg it’s still a tail.”
Quite simply, common sense means “to be in contact with human reality.” It “makes us rational beings and moral agents” and “enables us to meet the challenges of daily existence as human beings—and also to meet extraordinary challenges.”
Standing in the way of recovering common sense are our political and intellectual elites. Influenced by a toxic brew of romanticism, Hegelianism, progressivism, and postmodernism, the elites’ war against reality, Curry contends, is a direct threat to the perpetuation of republican government. A stultifying political correctness that permeates our universities, media, and government, and the doxxing of public and private figures alike who harbor even the mildest opposition to the elite consensus is clear evidence of the effects of this all-encompassing war.
The elites’ war on common sense should be obvious to anyone with, well, common sense.
Citing the teachings of the eighteenth-century moral philosopher Thomas Reid, Curry argues that the “core idea” of common sense is “self-evident truth.”
“A self-evident truth,” Curry writes, “is known to be true by everyone who grasps the meaning of the terms used to express it.” This is a useful correction to the common error that self-evident simply means “obvious.” As Curry makes clear, although no “proof is required…a process of discovery may be necessary.”
The mathematical equation 2 + 2 = 4 is a basic example of a self-evident truth. Another is the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” found in the Declaration of Independence.
For the American Founders the truth of natural human equality—the proposition that there are no natural rulers among men the same way there are natural rulers in a bee colony—is self-evident. Once assented to, an individual cannot deny its truth without resorting to subterfuge or self-deception.
Yet, Curry adds, common sense is more than recognizing reality and making practical decisions. It “gives us the ability to make choices that are right in moral terms as well.” Common sense is in fact a necessary virtue and the key to “self-mastery,” or ruling oneself within limits prescribed by nature.
Curry writes that Americans of the Founders’ generation considered that individuals “who are capable of personal self-rule…are also capable of political self-rule” (Curry’s emphasis). The Founders justified the establishment of republican government upon the basic capacity for citizens to utilize common sense and the resultant virtue of self-rule. As Publius wrote in Federalist 55:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
While Curry’s case for the modern recovery of common sense is strong, his claim concerning the nature of those who reject common sense is not as convincing. He contends that students, political elites, and others who deny common sense argue that “there are no basic moral truths.” But moral relativism does not seem to be the impetus driving those at war against common sense.
“They ruthlessly enforce a moral hierarchy of victimhood,” Heather Mac Donald has recently noted, “based on what they know to be the truth: that America is endemically racist and sexist.” Consider the central idea behind the New York Times’ ill-fated 1619 Project. It is not a nihilistic screed that condemns the Founders for asserting any truth at all but an argument that slavery—not equality rightly understood—is the nation’s true foundation.
The denizens of wokeness hold to an alternate view of justice that strikes at the heart of the possibility of “E Pluribus Unum” grounded on a common sense understanding of the world. Their worldview is one defined by hatred of oppressor classes and rests on the moral basis of the redistribution of goods by government from the more to the less privileged. There is nothing further from relativism and nihilism.
Recovering the foundations on which America’s existence depends is the central task of modern statesmanship. Robert Curry’s Reclaiming Common Sense provides Americans the tools we need to carry out this pivotal project.