In a quietly energizing treatise, Bell (Constitutional Law/NYU School of Law; Confronting Authority, 1994, etc.) addresses the question of living ethically and with fulfillment.
The author speaks from experience about how to maintain integrity while seeking success, how to square ambition and dreams in a competitive marketplace while holding true to a sense of right. He gave up tenure at Harvard in protest over the lack of minority women faculty, and for the same reasons a deanship at the University of Oregon. It must be understood that what Bell means by ambition is accomplishment, not power or money (“We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained”). He throws his lot with the ethical route: “. . . a good 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.” This means social justice, a respect for humanity, for speaking out to honor oneself and one’s convictions to achieve a self-sustaining dignity that no amount of money can buy. Bell concedes that it isn’t simple knowing when to take risks or how to appreciate “the potentially dangerous and destructive consequences of words and actions intended to do good,” but he also knows that mistakes and failures are inevitable and must be learned from. Nor does he claim to be a paragon of righteousness, admitting to inertia and attempts to avoid confrontation. Yet he tries “to live the life I sing about in my song”: accepting compromise only to a point, keeping a steady passion for integrity, doing good works of faith, taking cues from role models—including Charlie Chaplin and Medgar Evers—and staying wary for the practical reason that when income is endangered, so are ethics.
Ethical ambition isn’t an oxymoron, says Bell, but a winding road that likely feeds the spirit more than the pocketbook.