BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Your mileage may vary ...

Like my just-reviewed book by A. Alvarez, this was obtained via the $2 sale at, but this exhibits a different end result ... where I might not have purchased the other in a store (and missed its pleasures), I'm reasonably sure that, given the chance to flip through this, I would have been very unlikely to have picked it up. Now, this is not to say that Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth by Prof. Derrick Bell is not a good book, it certainly is that, it's just that it's based on realities sufficiently outside of my experience to require acts of contextual identification beyond what I'm in the habit of attempting.

Prof. Bell was the first Black member of the Harvard Law School faculty, has held various positions in the Justice Department, been very active with the NAACP, and been on the faculties of several universities. From just reading this book, one gets the impression that he developed his biggest notoriety from assorted protests involving his highly-visible professional positions, which led him to take unpaid leaves or quit what most would consider to be cushy much-to-be-maintained tenured situations in the name of some "issue" or another which he felt needed to be highlighted.

Obviously, the title "Ethical Ambition" comes from this, and on some level the book seems to be his putting his resume in the framework of doing what he felt needed to be done at these various points in his life. As much as I typically avoid "philosophy" books, this is one case where I had really hoped for a more abstracted work. Unfortunately (at least from the standpoint of my connecting with it), this is very much grounded in "the Black experience" and the "civil rights" movement ... cultural elements of which I am (at best) an outside observer.

The book is in six chapters, each dealing with a different area of ethical concern: "The Power In Passion", "Courage and Risk Taking", "Evolving Faith", "Advancing Relationships", "Ethical Inspiration", and "Humility's Wisdom". The book started out strongly enough, with the first two chapters being things easily generalized, but somewhat "fell off the table" after that.

Here's a snippet from the second chapter:
Courage is a decision you make to act in a way that works through your own fear for the greater good as opposed to pure self-interest. Courage means putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right. The stakes don't have to be life and death, and the situation doesn't have to be dramatic. You could exercise courage in a conversation were the greatest risk you run is being yelled at, laughed at, or refused.
And, here's a bit from the fourth:
For some of us, it is easier to confront an angry boss or even a hostile crowd than it is to leave an exciting work project and do justice as a spouse and parent. Achieving balance in an ongoing challenge, but an absolutely necessary one, and one well worth the continuing effort it requires.
Again, this is not so much a philosophical book as it is a quasi-autobiography in which the author tries to frame certain issues and life challenges in relation to his experiences. Personally, I don't think he achieved a level of detaching the ethical theory implied in these chapters from the specifics of his own experience, or from the thrust of his career. In order to get some context, I did what I rarely do and peeked at some other reviews ... interestingly it seems that this books is required reading for 1st year law students at some schools (those I'd guess with strong "civil rights" programs) ... there seemed to be two themes of thought on this, unbridled enthusiasm from those of a progressive bent, and folks brushing this off as pure ego-inflation ("arrogance and vanity seeping off the pages") on Bell's part.

I'm certainly willing to cut Prof. Bell slack on having a self-focused book, but then the question becomes "what's the book for?", as it speaks of ethical situations grounded in rather narrow contexts, which he then struggles to make more universal statements about. The passages quoted above were extracted from text which dealt with very specific events. I,of course, have no idea how this came to print, but (from having been in the publishing biz) can imagine a tug-of-war between the author and his editors to make this more about "Living a Life of Meaning and Worth" than "my struggles with ethics and bad people who just don't get it" ("my struggles" could have made a snappy title, albeit causing certain problems in some foreign editions).

Anyway, I am very likely not the "key audience" for Ethical Ambition and how you'll like it will depend (I believe) on your politics and cultural milieu. Bell at least seems to try to make some universal statements about ethics, but does seem bogged down by both ego and mission. I certainly wouldn't recommend spending full cover price for this (it is out there undiscounted, no doubt for the academic market), but if it does sound like something you'd be interested in, the new/used guys on Amazon have "like new" copies for as little as a penny (four bucks with shipping). Definitely a "your mileage may vary" case.

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Tags: book review
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