It is only too typical that a group of British Tory MPs reported in the Daily Express demanding a reform - presumably tightening - of the asylum system is called the 'Common Sense' group. We are habituated, often subconsciously, to 'common sense' being a signal for right-wing politics and counter calls for 'humanity and decency' a signal for left-wing politics. It scarcely needs to be said that the 'culture wars' on both sides of the Atlantic closely match this divide.

The poisonous associations of common sense - which ought to be nothing more menacing than 'sound practical judgement that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence' in the words of - have roots going back a long way. Back to the argument, already familiar to the Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, that 'common sense morality' sanctions our giving priority to our close and personal associations over the universal concerns supposedly sanctioned by (for example) utilitarianism. The link to campaigning about migration, and asylum for those suffering danger and persecution in their homelands, is all too direct and clear.

This is a superbly dark illustration of the way academic philosophical arguments about ethics can find their way into political emnity. It seems to me that if philosophers cannot settle their differences (and the argument about common sense morality remains live today), the outcome will be left to relative strengths on the political battlefield.

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