The road less troubled

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.

And yet Bell rings almost wacky in his recommendations for taking passionate stands for your convictions. At one point he rambles: "When we contemplate the ways that people seek thrills, is it possible that we need this feeling in one form or another, and that many who would not dare to challenge those in authority seek the needed assertion of self in the artificial thrill of playing the lottery, bungee jumping, or driving too fast? If it is possible, then it is sad to think how many people miss the more real and more humane thrill that can come when we stand up for what we believe is right against those who believe we are wrong." Once again, for those without book contracts and portable skills, fighting the establishment with a peashooter is rarely a thrilling experience.

On the need for faith, Bell underscores that he was raised in the communal arms of the African Methodist Episcopal church. He confesses that he could not have made the turns that he did in his career were it not for his belief in things unseen. Nevertheless, the author notes that there are many lines in the Bible, such as the condemnation of homosexuality, that gainsay the beliefs he has spent his life defending. So what is a person to do who needs God when he hears the word of God contradicting his moral beliefs? Perhaps he goes the way of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who, as Bell approvingly paraphrases, pushes the boundaries of traditional Christian faith and advocates seeking "a new vision of the holy beyond theism." Commenting on that new vision, Bell observes, "Acknowledging that much of what I have learned about Jesus is myth simply opens the door to understanding what it was about Jesus and his life that led those who knew him to see the need to create the needs in the first place."

And yet if the Bible cannot be regarded as sacred, then what resources are available for the individual who wants to step through the door of this new, demythologized understanding? Might more honest folks of Spong and Bell's persuasion simply say goodnight to Christianity? As Kierkegaard points out, the possibility of faith is intimately bound up with offense. Almost every time Jesus meets someone he pleads, "Do not be offended in me," but where has the rub of faith gone when God becomes your own ideals writ very large? The ukase of Bell's life is "Be inclusive," and the quality that earmarks the divinity of his Jesus is inclusiveness. Bell's faith is quite openly a faith in himself. This extreme self-reliance and refusal to acknowledge any authority outside of the self may be orthodoxy today, but to the community that Bell was nurtured in it is post-Christian apostasy.

Whether he is writing about passion, courage or faith, Bell's reflections read as though he believed that something akin to gumption was the cardinal virtue. He may be right. And yet what good is the gumption to stand by your convictions if you do not have the right convictions? Would Professor Bell applaud the zealously anti-abortion individual who is taken to jail for illegally picketing an abortion clinic? Or again, how are we to distinguish between beliefs that we should take to the barricades to defend and those that need not be held at high cost?

Bell has, as they say, walked his talk, and his plain talk about that walk will be helpful to some. Still, those who hang on his words should listen for the silences on the importance of developing moral discernment.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World