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Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.

by Derrick Bell Bloomsbury of New York and London October 2002 $19.95, ISBN 1-582-34205-9

Is it possible to maintain one's personal integrity and ethics while climbing the ladder of success? Well, not always--if one measures that success solely in terms of job titles and material wealth. But if one places the proper value on ethical living, then a life devoted to doing the right thing--in whatever profession one chooses--can not only help others, but can bring oneself the kind of success that transcends dollars and cents. That is the message of Bell's new book, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. While acknowledging the need to live in the real world of college loans and mortgage payments, where taking moral stands involves risk, Bell sees risk-taking as "probably the most defining act of an ethical life."

There is a risk involved, of course, just in writing a book such as Bell's--namely, that of eliciting the response, "Who is this guy to tell me how to live my life?" In Bell's case, though, two factors defuse that reaction. The first is that the 71-year-old Bell has clearly earned the right to give the rest of us some advice. A military veteran who served in Korea, he has not only written other books, including the fictional works And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well, but has taught law, worked in Mississippi as a civil rights lawyer during the dangerous days of the desegregation movement, and won fame as what might be called a habitual stand-taker: he has sacrificed prestigious posts at the University of Oregon Law School (where he was dean) and at Harvard University over those schools' failure to hire minority women as law professors. (He currently teaches at the New York University School of Law.) The second factor is Bell's gentle tone. The voice that emerges from the pages of Ethical Ambition is not that of a preacher in vengeance-is-mine mode, but of a kindly man who has seen a thing or two and simply wants to pass on the benefit of his experience.

Bell's brief book is divided into six chapters, each of which addresses a subject that Bell personally finds relevant for ethical living; the themes explored are passion, courage, faith, relationships, ethical inspiration, and humility. Particularly interesting are Bell's views on the roles of faith and humility in living an ethical life. While practicing a progressive form of Christianity, Bell acknowledges, "There are many other spiritual paths, not to mention faiths, which are not centered on religion of any kind.... Indeed, many ethical people want nothing to do with organized religion, but they view life as a gift with an obligation to uplift the lives of those around them. These people, paradoxically, may be closer to living the life that Jesus urged than many who adhere to the doctrines of one of the Christian denominations."

In the chapter "Humility's Wisdom," Bell warns of the danger of becoming so caught up in your cause that you lose sight--as Bell himself admits to having done--of the needs of those you are supposedly serving.

Occasionally, Bell's observations veer toward the familiar; the conclusion he reaches in a passage on honesty, for example, is basically that it's the best policy. But even in those portions of the book, one has the sense of being led by a wise teacher through lessons well worth revisiting. In Ethical Ambition, Bell has written a useful, thought-provoking and timely book.

--Clifford Thompson is a writer of fiction and essays, and editor of Current Biography.
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Thompson, Clifford
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Words:598
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