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Do more than Trust Your Gut                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Dec/07/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: My philosophy,

When faced with a situation that just “does not feel right” we encouraged each other to “Trust Your Gut.” All animals have gut reactions, after all isn’t that what we call instinct. Still, we are human and our text books teach us that being able to reason is part of what sets us apart from other species. Trusting your gut should be the beginning and not the end or our decision making process. If all you do is trust your gut, you will fail ethically.

Don’t misunderstand me, gut reactions are important. What we call our “guts” is really the amygdala firing off instinctive-feeling emotional reactions to the hypothalamus (it took some research to find that technical description). These gut reactions are often very primitive: Hate it, love it, fear it, I want more of it. This is the nature side of us that we share with other members of the animal kingdom. This is why we hesitate in the dark when we can’t see the sidewalk and jerk the steering wheel without apparently thinking when a car swerves in front of us. Our basic survival is often dependant on these gut reactions so they should not be taken lightly. As humans we spend a lifetime accumulating experiences and knowledge such that we can reason beyond just our gut instincts, or at least that is what we hope.

There are many who would argue that our ability to rise beyond our gut reactions is what makes us human. The sources of these non gut reactions are accumulated experience, religious teaching, ethically significant constructs and valued advice. In neuro-scientific terms, it’s having a pre-frontal cortex that can mediate the impulses of the amygdale (another good set of technical terms). That mediation is what allows us to make an ethically or morally significant choice that isn’t in our gut.

So being human means we have the ability to reach beyond just our guts. This means we also have an ethical duty to strengthen and augment that pre-frontal cortex through reflection, education and contemplation. All of this also means that we must learn to look at our world subjectively seeking deeper meanings and more subtle lessons. Little in life is as black and white, good or evil as we were taught in our childhood. Being able to repress your gut instinct and make these subjective assessments is often called ethical reasoning and is by no means easy.

I would like to think that there would be one divining place to seek this wisdom, but that would be naive. Taking a class in philosophy or ethics is a good start. In most of my writing I avoid religion because I view it as a deeply personal choice, but the texts of most modern religions have a lot to offer in the way of parables and ethical decisions. Religious dogma can be an excellent source of learning provided you are willing to read and study for the subjective and subtle lessons. Much like reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, you could simply see this as a tale of an angry man hunting a white whale. The more subtle lesson is of a man who allows the pursuit of vengeance and revenge to become all consuming and not only eventually destroy him, but those people who are around him. The lesson for all of us is obviously to avoid being eaten up by hate and vengeance.

One of the key examples where trusting your gut fails, is with your feelings about other people. If you decide by gut decisions to trust someone unconditionally you can be positioning yourself dangerous disillusionment. Yet, choosing not to trust people can foster a very isolated life. Choosing to be open and kind initially while learning about someone will help you to make an intelligent decision that vastly surpasses anything you could do with your gut. Learning and questioning matters here a lot. After all, to most people, interracial marriage once felt wrong. So did letting Jews into country clubs and women into Ivy League colleges.

We all know from experience that you can feel something in your gut and still be wrong. We’ve all trusted someone who turned out not to be trustworthy, and believed things “tradition” told us (for example, whites are smarter than blacks, men are smarter than women) that turned out to be factually and morally wrong. The process of educating the moral conscience, of growing up morally and ethically, is, in large part, the process of applying passion and reason to what we think we already know. My father once told me that passion demands that we think justly, and reasoning helps us do it.

Challenging yourself in these situations will often feel uncomfortable. For most of us, when we first encounter a thought, person or situation that does not fit with our expectations, there is discomfort. But the discomfort we all feel when confronted with something or someone new — multiracial families, people of different physical ability, handicapped people — should not be a signal to retreat. Discomfort is where you should be questioning your situation and where your learning should begin.

Guts, in contrast, are impulsive, based on animal instincts, and often inaccurate. Moreover, they are illusory in nature: The feelings associated with guts seem to come from within, but in fact are determined by cultural assumptions and biases. Even on a gut, instinctual level, our very hearts and minds are shaped by assumptions and judgments that may be so familiar that they pass unnoticed. And these assumptions are culturally determined or taught: Show a picture of a dog to someone born into a Western society, and they may think “pet,” and possibly feel affection. Show the same picture to someone born into a society with different culinary mores, and they think “food,” and feel hungry.

What have we learned about this gut, anyway? It’s really just a word we use to describe some feelings that arise at some times. In almost every case for me these gut reactions or feelings are very black or very white. My accumulated experiences have taught me that little in my life is black or white. So the truth is that there is very little or no connection between those gut feelings and realities of life. Therefore, moral values and ethical decisions should transcend our baser instincts and the snap judgments they produce. Does this mean you will always be right…I doubt it, but being human means rising above those gut instincts.

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Robert Frost
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