Ethics and ambition

Derrick Bell is one of the US’ most forthright and best-known commentators on race and ethics.

Derrick Bell is one of the US’ most forthright and best-known commentators on race and ethics.

Bell, now visiting professor at New York University’s School of Law, attracted headlines when he became the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School in 1971, only to leave in protest about the lack of African-American women on the faculty. He also resigned as dean of Oregon Law School after the school refused to hire a qualified Asian-American woman. His latest book, Ethical Ambition, applies his thinking on ethics to the world of business.

As a lawyer and academic, people might question your credentials to talk about business ethics.

True. It’s one thing to preach about living an ethical life in the world of academia – sure there’s some power plays and politics there – but it’s nothing like business. People might ask what do I know about this slugit- out, beat-to-the-bottom-line, winner-takes-all world. I have avoided working within it. But it seems to me that the principles are similar. You won’t succeed unless your primary concern is keeping hold of your integrity.

So you’re right to think that the field of business is different but I don’t think it is possible to live a life without an ethical code. You need to look in the mirror.

So how can ambition be ethical? Aren’t ambition and ethics mutually exclusive?

Ethics can be an integral part of your ambition. There is no lasting success that isn’t ethically founded.

Ethical ambition means simultaneously honouring our values, our dreams and our needs. It requires critical compassion and Business Strategy Review, 2003, Volume 14 Issue 1, pp 3-4 honesty towards ourselves and others. It can be achieved only by thoughtfully and candidly assessing who we are, what we believe, what we value and what we desire. It also involves sacrifice – not only of time and energy but also of inaccurate or outdated perceptions of ourselves and our lives.

Many of us are thwarted in achieving our goals because when our values and desires clash we are paralysed. Others are disappointed with their lives because they surrendered things – like hopes and convictions – that seemed to stand in the way of more material goals.

There are no universal codes of ethics are there? Nepotism, for example, is acceptable in Mexico but not in the US.

That’s a good example because nepotism inevitably leads to its own difficulties, even if no laws are broken and it works out OK. Basically, if you bring people in and shoot them up to the top, there are negative reverberations all the way down.

Looking back at your career, have you always looked in the mirror?

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