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Moral Ambition

May 13, 2024 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Moral ambition is a pamphlet that calls for action. Rutger Bregman writes that all of us – yes, you included – need to take action to contribute to a better world. He considers it everyone’s moral duty to make a difference and leave behind something that really matters. Moral ambition in his view is the will to drastically improve the world, to devote your career to the major problems of our time.

Bregman calls on his readers to quit jobs that do not matter or even cause harm: advertisers who promote addictive drugs, insurance agents who sell extortionate policies and anyone who works for the gambling or tobacco industry.

Instead, think about what the world needs and invent it. It does not matter what your passion is, but how you can contribute the most. This can take countless forms, because it takes both rebels and nerds to change the world, people who throw stones as well as people who file lawsuits. Awareness is insufficient, so are good intentions. It’s about taking action.

Bregman admits that moral ambition is not always easy. You can be aware and then do something. Or you can look away because you are afraid of the consequences of your knowledge. Golden handcuffs can play a role. Once you have a dog, a blender and an electric lawn mower, you are usually a lost cause. However, looking away can be a necessary form of self-protection. If you constantly carry the suffering of the world on your shoulders, you will fall over.

He writes with admiration about Charity Entrepreneurship, a training course for do-gooders. Every year the school conducts research into how you can help as many people and animals as possible. What are the most effective solutions to the world’s biggest problems? What are the investments with the highest return? Which organizations should exist, but haven’t been founded yet? The problems to be tackled have in common that they are extensive, underexposed and solvable. The people at this school have the idealism of an activist, the ambition of a start-up founder, the critical skills of a scientist and the modesty of a monk. Bregman himself gives substance to his argument by founding the School for Moral Ambition and donating the money he receives for his lectures to it. See www.moreleambitie.nl.

It was once controversial to be against the slave trade, to fight for women’s suffrage or to oppose racial segregation. The question is which contemporary practices will be considered outdated in fifty years and require action today. Do we still kill animals to eat them? And do we consider animals as industrial means of production? Will we continue to damage ecosystems to maintain our prosperity? Bregman uses six criteria to consider a pattern that is still generally accepted as criminal: if we have already heard what is wrong with it, if we say that this is how it goes, if we duck away from the uncomfortable facts, if we ridicule those who oppose the custom, if we find it difficult to explain the custom to our children, if we suspect that future generations will find it barbaric.

I’m curious how many people will change their lives after reading Bregman’s book. I feel called to do more than I am doing now, especially in donating to charities, but not in changing my work. The social usefulness of my work is an important criterion for me, it is one of the reasons that I do what I do. Having said that, I could undoubtedly do work that would make more of a difference on a global scale, but I don’t think I would enjoy it as much, let alone more, than what I do now. Does that mean that my moral ambition is lacking? How about yours?

Rutger Bregman. Morele ambitie. Stop met het verspillen van je talent en maak werk van je idealen. De Correspondent, 2024