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ethical amibition


When Derrick Bell, long-time civil rights lawyer, law professor at Harvard, NYU, and other schools, author, commentator and more writes a book, entitled Ethical Ambition, about morality and survival and getting ahead, you probably want to have a look. In the introduction, Bell writes:

I want this book to encourage those who, by reading it, may recognize more clearly their abilities, talents, and potential for positive contributions in this world. A committed life need not mean one without fun, without laughter, without romance. Energized with this insight, readers may better see that a full life should include humor and good times while challenging the barriers that life poses. This all-encompassing approach can nourish the spirit—whatever the risks, whatever the outcome.”

Bell explicitly calls for a multi-faceted life, asserting that serving the common good is life’s highest purpose and we cannot truly and fully do that without taking care of ourselves. Put another way, we cannot spread love and support and goodness unless love is inside us; the strength and compassion to care for others is founded on caring for ourselves and those we love. While acknowledging the challenges of his prescription—“trying to simultaneously balance my dreams and needs is tough, and requires an ongoing assessment of who I am, what I believe, value, and desire”—he affirms the importance of honoring his values and believes that his “needs will be taken care of.” Such commitment is “scary and exhilarating” for him, and ultimately exactly the right thing to do.

Bell identifies six keys to ethical living—passion, courage, faith, relationships, inspiration, and humility—and dedicates a chapter in the book to each. His take on each is unique and peppered with personal narrative.

For Bell, we all have passion, but we do not always access it or use it in ways that are productive for us or for the world. It “is not an event, but an energy; and it’s an energy that exits in all of us all the time. The question is not whether we have it but whether we access it and how we channel it.” In addition, passion can be both constructive and destructive:

The difference between a passion that nourishes and one that denies you is that the first enhances the experience of being present, and the second facilitates the experience of escape. So contrary to popular belief, passion is not something you have or you don’t, or that has to be fed or it dies. It’s something that grows strong because you nourish it with the experiential equivalent of healthy food and sunlight, or wastes away because you deny it the attention and nourishment it needs to thrive.
Passion will respond to the buzz of a quick fix: sarcasm, too much junk food, impulse buying, gossip, rage . . . . But it thrives on substance: a job well done, giving credit to others, standing up for what you believe in, voluntarily returning lost valuables, choosing what feels right over what might feel good right now. In other words, nourishing passion is ethical passion—it’s finding power in doing the right thing.

If passion is the energy that feeds our ethical actions, courage is the determination to use that energy in the service of our true values, “putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right,” since “courage has no meaning if there is no consequence to be feared.” And there are consequences to be feared because, according to Bell, “to be human is to be brought up against fears, large and small, whether we’re conscious of them or not.” We can repeatedly decide to take risks in the face of fear, and for the right reasons, “but however much we learn from our experiences, there is no graduation from fear training, no degree in courage. It is behavior that we must carry on for a lifetime.” By making that decision, over a lifetime, we can make a difference; and “by understanding that courage is not a reflex, but a consequence of knowing your own mind, determining right and wrong for yourself and acting on that understanding, you create the possibility of risk taking in the interest of the greater good. Your good and the greater good become almost synonymous.” Ultimately, then, for Bell to be afraid is to be human and “to risk ethically is a difficult blessing, but whatever the outcome, to risk ethically is also to live.”

Bell’s sections on the importance of spiritual faith, relationships, and inspiration are equally as powerful and speak both to what we can receive from them and to our responsibility to our faith, our relationships, and our inspirations. He speaks, in particular, to the need to be present and ethical in our relationships: “we will always make mistakes, and there is always the possibility of learning from them, but if we cannot behave ethically overall toward the person with whom we have chosen to share our lives, what real value can there be in the show of ethical behavior toward others?” A powerful question and one that he explores further, trying to find the balance between doing good work in the world and being in relationship. Part of his answer is to “argue that the belief that you are working for justice and against evil can take over your life as much as the drive for wealth can.”

Similarly, as he moves on to discuss humility, he writes that “self-righteousness is a gentle curse visited on those striving for social reform and personal uprightness. Humility, no cure, can serve as a continuing reminder of the difficulty of doing good.” He also counsels against placing too much belief in the power and the effects of any of your actions: “ethical actions must always fail if we understand them in terms of end goals. . . . no dramatic change . . . is likely to achieve even most of what it promises; if your criterion for success is perfection, then the failure of every ethical action is assured.” So, in the context of ethical living, humility is “the acceptance of inevitable failure and the willingness each day not to be daunted by it, the conscious connection of our knowledge and our experience.”

The book concludes with this message:

We cannot know whether our actions are a help or a harm. . . . Our lives gain purpose and worth when we recognize and confront the evils we encounter—small as well as large—and meet them with a determination to take action even when we are all but certain that our efforts will fail. . . . an ethical life is not a life a sacrifice. It is, in fact, a life of riches.

Bell’s tone is personal and real. His model and experience is inspiring and, I believe, many of us can learn from it—and, for me, there is more. In terms of motivation, another reason I do what I do is simply for people. Simple and profound, but sadly not as common as I would like, respect and appreciation of other people is a major part of my life and of every social interaction. It means that I am happy to see people, that I look them in the eyes, that I notice them and say “hello,” acknowledging their presence and their humanity. I do this because I sincerely like people, almost to a fault. I think this approach to life jives with Bell’s view of an ethical life; it helps make my life richer and better, more full of what feeds me–other people.

Beyond that there is an even stronger motivation for me: loyalty to my friends and allies. I don’t want to be the one who lets someone I care about down. I want to be dependable; I want those I love to rely on me and for them to know that when I mess up it is the exception, not the rule for my behavior and that I will take responsibility for my failings. I try to learn how better to care for my friends and family and how not to let them down.

The fundamental lesson to learn from Ethical Ambition is that we must live passionately and follow our hearts. To do anything less is to live less fully and less well; to do less is to be untrue to our family, friends, colleagues, and allies. Most importantly, what’s in our hearts is the acid test of whether we are true to ourselves.


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