Ethical Fitness and the Overflow of the Heart

Do you consider yourself a good person? I certainly hope so. But, on what basis do any of us make that claim? I have a few answers to consider from Scripture, and from the field of ethics.

I’ve arrived at this topic during the time of quarantine. During this time, whether aware of it or not, we are making many ethical decisions such as, “Is it OK to visit Grandma?” or “Should we reopen our business yet?” or “Should we consider home schooling our kids next year?” What is the thought process involved in making these decisions? How do we become wiser and more confident in our ethical decision making? The answer, like the answer to how we get to Carnegie Hall, is practice, practice, practice.

First, let’s define ethics. A few shades of meaning from Webster’s dictionary include:  a set of moral principles, a theory or system of moral values, the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group, or, a guiding philosophy. Ethics and morality are often confused, understandably, because “moral” or “morality” often appears as part of the definition of ethics. But moral choices and ethical decisions are different from each other in some very important ways.

With moral choices we choose between right and wrong based on legal, religious or social expectations. Families and societies reach consensus about moral and immoral behavior, and individual consciences develop from there. Moral choices don’t usually have gray areas. Morality is not merely aspirational; it is expected that we abide by our agreed upon rules or accept the potential consequences of our wrongdoing. Robbery, adultery, murder, fraud—these are unambiguously immoral choices, not the product of an ethical decision-making process. An active conscience leads us toward good moral choices, whereas a weak or inactive conscience allows for immoral choices.

In contrast, ethics are aspirational. We internalize standards that we aspire to achieve consistently in our conduct toward others. When faced with ethical dilemmas, we must choose between the good and the better, or sometimes between the bad and the less bad. Often there is not a clear path, and we must carefully deliberate before taking action.

This has clear application in the counseling world. Counselors aspire to scrupulously protect their clients’ privacy because it is a crucial aspect of professional ethics. But if a client declares he is going to blow his brains out as soon as he leaves the counselor’s office, the ethic of care overrides the ethic of confidentiality. A wise counselor will call a family member or law enforcement officer to prevent harm to human life. Keeping a promise of privacy is a good thing—it allows for the trust and safety necessary for the therapeutic process. But in the big picture, the privacy is not going to matter if the person ends his life.

Outside of the professional realm, ethical choices can be murkier. When we ask if it’s okay to visit Grandma in the time of pandemic, we consider the state of Grandma’s health, and the relative risk of exposing Grandma to illness. But we also must consider how lonely Grandma is, how much she needs our company and touch and support after weeks in isolation. FaceTime and Zoom are great, but they just don’t cut it sometimes.

If we haven’t flexed our ethical muscles much, these daily questions can be very heavy lifting.  Rushwood Kidder, a well-known secular ethicist took a shot at defining what makes people “good” when he stated,

Good people are good, we say, because they seem to have some conscious sense of vision, some deep core of ethical values, that gives them the courage to stand up to the tough choices. That doesn’t mean they face fewer choices than other people. Quite the opposite: Those who live in close proximity to their basic values are apt to agonize over choices that other people, drifting over the surface of their lives, might never even see as problems…*

In other words, being a highly ethical person doesn’t make life easier. It often becomes more complex, because we become highly sensitized to how our words and actions might impact everyone else.

I have borrowed Kidder’s term “ethical fitness.” This is analogous to physical fitness. If we want to become physically fit, we must put effort into this goal. It won’t just happen. We put increased demand on our muscles, bones, and organs, and they grow stronger and healthier over time. It’s the same with ethical fitness. The more we exercise our minds and hearts to discerning what is good, not only for ourselves, but for others, the more our hearts become ethically strong and healthy. Kidder explains,

Ethical fitness is NOT mentally passive, nor is it blind impartiality, doling out right and wrong according to some stone-cold canon of ancient and immutable law. It’s a warm and supremely human activity that cares enough for others to want right to prevail. And it’s not mere analysis” where “ethics becomes an academic, intense, and essentially irrelevant exercise, marginal to the real problems of the world and disengaged from the goal of changing behavior and building a better future. *

Ethics is for everyone, not just for leaders and professional people. But it’s good to know that ethicists like Kidder, who consult with leaders in multiple fields, have this understanding that ethical fitness is essentially a matter of the heart. And in this, Scripture comes to life through the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, the best ethics consultant who ever lived! Jesus taught us,

A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush.  A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:43-45).

I like this imagery of trees and fruit, bramble bushes and thorns. If we haven’t been cultivating good fruit by making right choices, then there will be no fruit, only prickly words and actions that hurt people. But if we cultivate hearts of kindness, goodness, peace, and generosity, the fruit in our lives will be evident. We become a blessing and a source of sustenance for others.

Mixing metaphors, Jesus declares that what has been stored up inside “overflows” into our words and our actions. We become those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. (Heb. 5:14). This is ethical fitness.

As we all work together to do good and help one another during difficult circumstances, remember that we are exercising our ethical muscles. We are in training, preparing ourselves to go the distance in life with goodness and integrity.

*Rushwood Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living (1995), ISBN 0-688-13442-4.

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