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The road less troubled

Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, Derrick Bell, Bloomsbury Press: 184 pp., $19.95

March 02, 2003|Gordon Marino | Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. He is the author of "Kierkegaard and the Present Age."

Intended as a work of edification, Derrick Bell's "Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth" led this reader into temptation -- the temptation to be harshly judgmental. Though an evangelical proponent of the gospel of self-fulfillment, Bell is a moralist just the same. As moralists go, however, I will take mine with a larger measure of self-examination. Bell scarcely ever furrows his brow over his motives or decisions; barely a waft of moral vulnerability blows through the pages of this Baedeker to the good life.

After serving in Korea and joining the bar, Bell became a member of and later accepted a position with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Following his lodestar, Thurgood Marshall, Bell supervised civil rights and school desegregation cases in Mississippi during the dangerous years of the 1960s. Soon afterward he was teaching at Harvard Law School. Bell was the first African American to become tenured at that institution. However, in the late 1980s, Bell, who fervently believes that the ethnic and gender mix of a faculty must mirror the composition of its student body, urged that an African American woman be added to the faculty. The administration did not respond, and Bell protested by taking a highly publicized unpaid leave of absence from Harvard in 1990.

Bell also served as dean of Oregon Law School but left that post in 1985 after the faculty refused to appoint a highly qualified Asian American woman who was third on the list for a job there. Bell moved on to Stanford University, where he became involved in a similar fray. In 1986 he returned to Harvard, continuing to publicly protest the law school's hiring practices and tenure decisions. As a result of his leave of absence in 1990, however, he was dismissed from the Harvard faculty in 1992.

Bell's Harvard and Oregon protests did not put him in any peril of having to skip his summer vacation. A prolific writer, Bell had earned a national reputation and was soon ensconced in the prestigious New York University School of Law. Still, the exit from Cambridge, Mass., was not a career advancement move, and, to hear the author tell it in the book's introduction, many of the people who have applauded his acts of dissent have also pressed him to write a book addressed to the question: How can the desire for career and financial success be reconciled with the demands of conscience?

In almost every chapter of "Ethical Ambition," Bell repeats the old saw that a life of worth and meaning cannot be purchased without a willingness to sacrifice your immediate best bet of satisfaction for the greater good. Kant, however, argued that a morality that is pitched to you as a means to self-fulfillment is a morality that you will be inclined to talk yourself out of in the face of tough moral choices. The person who is honest only because he's been told that honesty is the best policy for achieving happiness will change his mind about the importance of honesty in situations in which telling the truth has dire personal consequences. As the tragic lives of his heroes Medgar Evers and Paul Robeson reveal, the world is rich in situations in which doing the right thing amounts to signing the death warrant on your personal prospects for happiness. The person who believes that nothing trumps the importance of one's need for self-fulfillment is not likely to find himself in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

"Ethical Ambition" is replete with object lessons, but almost all of the moral exemplars that Bell brings to the stage lead charmed lives. For instance, Bell reports that one day his sister Jan called him to complain that her landlord had just raised the rent by 30%. Furious, she put together a petition, but no one in her building was willing to sign it. Bell's sister was undaunted and "wrote letters to the new management, met with them, negotiated, and finally ended up with a much smaller rent increase." The moral that we are supposed to glean from this and other vignettes is that righteous protest makes you feel better and often works, so do not be afraid to stand up for your convictions. I have two close friends who bravely took on the golems of unjust institutions, and I regret to report that, unlike Bell's sister, they are both suffering from deep vocational and emotional bruises.

Bell offers a recipe for a life of worth and meaning: Develop large measures of passion and courage. Sprinkle in a pinch of faith. Nourish your relationships and look for inspirations. In the one shaft of self-doubt that appears in the book, Bell also counsels humility. As he learned from his untimely fight to force the integration of schools in Mississippi, you sometimes hurt the people you are fighting for. There is wisdom in these guidelines. Bell is, for example, right to profess that passion is not something that hits you like an arrow from Cupid but is instead born of and then amplified by commitment.

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