Moral Ambition




Moral Ambition is both a call to action and a manifesto for a self-proclaimed new movement from Dutch Rutger Bregman, who is probably best-known for his progressive thinking on universal basic income. The book’s subtitle “Stop Wasting Your Talent and Build a Legacy that Matters” reveals Bregman’s own aspirations and ambitions, even though it remains to be seen how compellingly he presents the case for more moral ambition.

According to Bregman, moral ambition is the will to drastically change the world, to devote your career to the big challenges of our time. Through a straightforward quadrant-style analysis, which considers both ambition and idealism, Bregman scrutinizes the societal contributions of people in bullshit jobs, consultancy and banking professionals, and well-meaning vegetarians alike.

In doing so, he challenges the common societal measures of success, such as “prestigious job titles, hefty salaries, and corner offices” more than anything. Bregman suggests his book might be uneasy to read, especially for people over thirty, who are “unlikely to change their [life’s] course”, thus highlighting the book’s focus on individualistic and self-help themes.

Predominantly, Bregman leans on anecdotal evidence from historical figures. Moral Ambition‘s narrative banks almost entirely on the English abolitionist movement and the allegedly crucial role of Thomas Clarkson in it. If Bregman were to be believed, Clarkson’s central position within the Quaker community is the sole reason the English slave trade and slavery in general were abandoned in the 19th century.

In doing so, Bregman overlooks the multifaceted nature of abolitionism, including the contributions of other advocates, the agency of oppressed slaves, the declining economic profitability of slave trade, peripheral changes in society, and growing worldwide interconnectivity. His critique of the progressive left’s focus on systemic issues, accusing it of fostering inaction, further underscores a preference for personality-driven change over systemic reforms.

Moral Ambition shows further signs of intellectual weakness in the causalistic nature of its arguments. Bregman clearly fits the tradition of writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker, who proclaim a cause-and-effect hyper-optimism about humankind, thereby ignoring unknown negative externalities and systemic risks. This approach mirrors neoliberal tendencies towards emphasizing individual responsibility.

However, the most damning aspect about Moral Ambition lies in the superficial treatment of moral philosophy, wavering aimlessly between Kantian deontology and a Bentham-style utilitarianism, eventually veering towards an extreme form of consequentialism, strongly building on Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality. This is evident in Bregman’s discussion on people like Peter Thiel and Bill Gates, and the effective altruism movement, which he supports almost uncritically. This stance not only perpetuates the issue of personality cults but also controversially prioritizes global philanthropy over local, personal acts of care.

Furthermore, Moral Ambition‘s exploration of ethics is notably shallow, failing to define ‘good’ or explore related concepts such as freedom and inequality. This omission is glaring, especially considering that Bregman also fails to provide a way or framework to establish good courses of action or to deliberate between two competing ethical views.

Ethics, or the question of what is good or what goodness is, is the essence of politics and democratic discourse. However, at no point during the 263 page-long book does Bregman pay any attention to democratic principles or the role of government in tackling society’s challenges. When combining this lack of attention to democracy with his championing personal responsibility, one cannot see past Bregman’s arguments as calling for entrepreneurial strongmen in a thinly veiled consequentialist ethics.

In summary, Moral Ambition is a book that tells its reader to do good without adequately defining what ‘good’ means, resting on a paternalistic appeal to privileged individuals to aid the less fortunate. This overlooks the essential role of systemic change and community involvement in creating a more equitable future, inadvertently lending support to unchecked capitalism and elite philanthropy.

As a result, Moral Ambition ultimately comes across as a self-help book masquerading as something more profound. Bregman offers a morally ambiguous justification for a personal business plan in which the individual defines his own added value and contribution to society. Moral Ambition is therefore not the work of an original thinker, but old wine in new bottles, lacking ethical clarity.

This definitively punctures the contrarian and progressive image that Bregman received after his 2019 Davos performance. He does not offer “an uncomfortable read”, apart from the fact that he adds global and systemic issues to the individual’s already sky-high feeling of responsibility. Also uncomfortable is the sub-par intellectual reasoning of Bregman’s argumentation, severely calling into question the desirability of his proposed moral ambition movement.

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