The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


The Uncommon Common Sense of Civic Virtue

“Justice and compassion are symptoms of a common-sense that sustains humans as capable of being morally responsible, rather than the all too common common-sense that we are just being acted upon by injustice and hatred.”

Terrance D. Olson | July 15, 2016
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A man stands before a blue lake. He contemplates many things, including civic virtue, civic life, his responsibilities to others, or his place in the community.



Will Rogers once noted, “Common sense ain’t necessarily common practice.” We might add, “Common explanations of behavior are not necessarily grounded in common sense.” At least not in the common sense attached to civic virtue, which is incompatible with the supposed common sense that guides many popular explanations of destructive human behavior. This is especially relevant when we are seeking to make sense out of, or find solutions to, many of the ongoing conflicts and contentions in society. Those contentions often seem to be immune from any kind of intervention and are carried out in supposedly logical, often destructive, ways.

For example, we might understand retaliatory gang violence better were we to just accept that revenge or payback is a natural and logically predictable feature of human interactions.  We may also explain such behavior as driven by a subculture that values image and power and bragging rights and a host of other shallow but constant norms that degrade the well-being of individuals.  But what is typical of such explanations is that they commonly look at conditions outside the agency of the individual as causes.  It is not that the situations we live in are irrelevant to the meaning of the destructive acts.  But when we attribute the cause of an individual’s act of violence just to external forces, we make the individual merely a victim of circumstances that seem (according to our common logic) overwhelming.  We conclude that individuals could not possibly have done otherwise.  Their moral responsibility not to be unjust or revengeful towards vengeful adversaries is obliterated by those external pressures.  This logic sustains the idea of victimhood as much as it regrets or decries the violence itself.

When we attribute the cause of an individual’s act of violence just to external forces, we make the individual merely a victim of circumstance.

But even if humans are victims of culture, circumstance or injustice, seeking revenge is not necessarily necessary.  An alternative course of action is possible, but it is grounded in an alternative common sense—a logic seemingly invoked much less commonly than the logic that looks for reasons for destructive behavior in external circumstances or incidents.  Some humans who have been victimized by violence actually do seek justice rather than revenge.  Seeking justice is grounded in a specific kind of common sense about moral responsibility and individual moral action.  Humans are seen as capable of responding to injustice with justice, rather than responding to injustice or vengeful acts with more vengeful acts.  To see humans as morally responsible also means people can respond to justice, or compassion, or innocence—with injustice, hatred and punishing behavior.  The view of humans as morally responsible (being moral agents) means that some kind of moral response other than revenge or bitterness or despair is possible.  It means seeking justice without being hateful.  It means being compassionate while still holding people accountable for wrongdoing.  

The prototypical example of evil run amok is the Holocaust. The prototypical example of moral response is that of Simon Wiesenthal—the decorated career Nazi hunter who was sometimes described by his critics “as a merciless avenger” (Lingens, in Wiesenthal, 1989, p.2). The title of Wiesenthal’s book is a response to those who thought him pitifully obsessed with revenge, and invoked the uncommon common sense upon which moral responsibility and moral action are based.  The title is simple:  Justice, not Vengeance.  His work was to redeem justice as a response to hateful violence.  His attitude was essential to his cause being moral.  Holding people accountable is distinct in quality from seeking revenge.  His work was personal, but not vengeful.      

We can have the uncommon common (moral) sense to respond to hate and vengeance by seeking justice and accountability

In everyday life, we do not always experience, but constantly do hear or read about, the extreme hatred abroad in the world.  But we can have the uncommon common (moral) sense to respond to hate and vengeance by seeking justice and accountability.  The injustices we experience are minor in degree when compared to the extremes, but our responses need to be of the same quality if justice, forgiveness and compassion—all longed for virtues—are to become more extensive in any community.    

An example of how it is possible for moral agents to meet everyday challenges without becoming bitter or uncompassionate was shown me when I attended the celebration to open the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The guest speaker was Simon Wiesenthal. Torrential rain had required many activities, including the opening ceremonies with full orchestra, to be moved inside. 

I had never met the contact person, Sheilah, who had arranged my attendance. She was a member of the public relations staff, and I saw who I correctly guessed was she, holding a rain-beaten black umbrella and looking for me. I introduced myself. She said not one word to me about how the rain and other surprises had required many last minute changes in plans and produced one-after-another pressures on the PR staff.  I only learned of such facts from her later. Her words of welcome were immediately followed by her announcement that she was very concerned that, while listening to KNX radio the previous evening, “that something threatening had happened to the leader of your church.”

I knew nothing about what she had heard. It was that President Howard W. Hunter (while speaking at the Fast Sunday devotional at BYU) had been accosted by a man claiming to have a bomb, and demanding that he be given the podium to make a statement.  My interest in the event was instant—not only because of the drama that made the midnight news in LA, but because, had I not stayed in California for the Museum of Tolerance opening, I would have been on the stand in the Marriott Center that night.

Sheilah explained that, “your president didn’t say anything, but held fast to the podium. Then the audience started singing a hymn and it distracted the man with the bomb so that the security people were able to overpower him. I am so impressed that an audience, in a situation where fear had to be present, chose to sing a hymn. I want to know what that hymn is.”

I thought of Sheilah’s concern for this Mormon stranger, and how she had put that concern first when we met.

I smiled and said, “Even though I was not there, I can tell you what the hymn was. Given your history and culture and religious commitment, I know you will appreciate the title of that hymn. It had to be, We Thank Thee O God For A Prophet.”  As the day unfolded, and I saw how everyone at the Museum celebration responded to being sardined into a large hall to hear Mr. Wiesenthal, I reflected on how the storm threatened to undermine the peace and joy of the event.  I thought of Sheilah’s concern for this Mormon stranger, and how she had put that concern first when we met, and only much later unfolded how challenging that morning’s rearrangement of activities had been.  So appropriate, that Simon Wiesenthal, the author of Justice, Not Vengeance, would have a staff member of the Museum of Tolerance demonstrate compassion, not resentment, in welcoming and showing concern for a guest and in going about her work. Justice and compassion are symptoms of a common-sense that sustains humans as capable of being morally responsible, rather than the all too common common-sense that we are just being acted upon by injustice and hatred to the point that we are no longer capable of moral responsiveness, but succumb to vengeance and resentment. 

[Reference: Lingens, P. M., in Wiesenthal, S. (1989). Justice, Not Vengeance. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.]