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Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth by Derrick Bell


Rating: (Recommended)


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A Path to Happiness

Derrick Bell presents how hes lived his life in a conversation memoir titled, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. Like much of the memoir genre, Ethical Ambition reveals the reflections of someone in later life with wisdom to pass along to others.

Heres an excerpt (pp. 17-19):

an ethical life is, of necessity, a passionate one. Simply relying on a generalized hope to do good in life is a poor shield against the forces insisting that integrity and ethical behavior are necessary sacrifices on the road to success. The dominant cultural messages offer a seductive attraction to goals of income, fame, and status. After all, by definition, a capitalist society is one in which wealth is generated through harvesting as profit the work product of others. To become a successful player in this economic system, we are led to believe that success demands sacrifice: If it's worth anything, it's worth everything.

True success often does demand sacrifice, but not of virtue, not of our beliefs, not of our desires and moral goals, certainly not in the often futile and always empty pursuit of material success. Empty because wealth, status, and celebrity do not guarantee and often subvert a meaningful quality of life. Yes, we have before us constantly the titans of the corporate world who are rewarded handsomely for their willingness to exploit employees, shamelessly produce and promote products regardless of their quality or usefulness, all while engaging in ruthless practices intended to damage competitors. I cannot say that those responsible for such behavior lack passion in their work, but it is a passion that deserves far more condemnation than it receives. It is certainly not a passion that I would wish to emulate or espouse to those who come to me seeking advice on ethical ambition. And I am not impressed that corporate heads engaged in these and a myriad of other morally indefensible policies seek to sanitize them by boasting of their charitable giving and involvement in good causes.

Living in the midst of a culture of hypocrisy and legalized but no less damaging practices, it is understandable that the slippery road toward unethical behavior too often follows the conclusion that we can't pursue our heart's passion and adhere to ethical standards. Avoiding being drawn into this seemingly pragmatic posture requires a character of resistance that is enhanced by a passion for integrity rather than success. Adherence to that passion can be sacrificial, but it can also enable achievements that are more impressive than those attained by people who believe that there is no place for ethical passion in a hard-hearted world.

I know that many students are in law school not because the study and practice of law appeals to them, but because of social pressure or their hope for financial security and their expectation that law offer them a stable future. Even when these students are able to achieve academically and later professionally, there is no guarantee that they won't be dissatisfied, even miserable in the very profession they've sacrificed so much to enter. When they come to me for advice, I find myself saying, "You may be finding it difficult to decide whether the law is what you want as a profession, because you may not know who you want to be." And yet I feel a degree of hope for these students because they at least have the courage to admit their doubts.

This memoir may appeal especially to lawyers, who share that profession with Bell. For all readers Ethical Ambition is an opportunity to eavesdrop on the reflections of a wise man and the decisions hes made along the path to happiness.

Steve Hopkins, December 23, 2002


2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2003 issue of Executive Times


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