Thomas Hobbes defined ambition as the ‘desire of office or precedence’[Leviathan, 1651].
The online OED elaborates ambition as the ‘ardent … desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ or a ‘strong or ardent desire of anything considered advantageous, honouring, or creditable’.
As few people would admit to ardently desiring anything just because it is ‘considered advantageous’ ambition has a bad smell about it. The ambitious person seems self-seeking and self-obsessed.
But we should distinguish between motives and effects. The surgeon whose only motive is to laud it over his friends may well save more lives than his colleague who aims only to treat whoever happens to be put in front of him.
If people’s ambitions can be aligned with general or social benefits we may not worry about the sort of person who might say that his ultimate ambition is for an obituary in The Economist (as is alleged to have been said in an interview at Goldman Sachs).
However, we might worry quite a lot about whether people’s ambitions are in fact well-aligned with social or general benefits. And on this the evidence is ambiguous. To illustrate: on May 21 2009 The Economist carried the obituary of Velupillai Prabhakaran a Tamil terrorist leader who trained women to ‘strap explosive belts underneath their dresses, a branch of warfare he had more or less invented.’
The fame analogy
People might want things that require fame. The actors who aspires to an Oscar must also be ‘box office’. This require that millions of people know who they are and so necessitates some level of fame. But only the very odd want fame for its own sake. As Ricky Gervais once said, if all you really want is fame, kill someone.
More specifically, if there is no independent reason for which you want to use fame, desiring fame is less than human. Fame has conditional value: its’ value is determined by the reason for which you seek it.
Ambition is similar. If there is no independent reason why you ‘desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ you might not care what you do to achieve it . You might manipulate, cause harm or do whatever it takes to advance and maintain your position.
Politicians are perhaps the best illustration of this. On Wednesday they insist that the contrary of what they sought on Monday is a vital national interest despite the world undergoing no change on Tuesday.
In 2012 the UK Prime Minister David Cameron was sceptical about the value of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. By early 2013, after several members of his own party sat on him, a referendum became a vital national interest.
But politicians must wait for another day. Our focus is narrower: if you seek success, but think very little about why, you cannot know whether your life is worthwhile.
The life worth living
We all worry about this, and given the amount of time we spend at work, questions about the value of our professions inevitably arise. This is more obvious for arms traders but is relevant to us all.
A failure to reflect adequately on the value of your work can lead to psychological crises. The person in their late-40s at the top of their profession, aware of the personal costs this has required, can suddenly be overcome by the banality of 25 years devotion.
And imagine how you might react if a person honestly said ‘I have never wondered whether my profession is worthwhile’? Of course, your reaction would depend on the person’s circumstances.
If he is a first generation immigrant with five children, you may respect him for putting aside personal considerations for the sake of his family. But if he is well-educated, and could have chosen from a number of well-paid professions, you may conclude that there is a hole where his character should be.
Why does this matter?
If you seek advantageous things, but do not reflect on why you seek them, then, whether your life is worthwhile will be determined by things about which you are unaware.
You will rely heavily on the dominant social norms of your society to align the personally advantageous with the worthwhile.This is a big gamble.
Of course, like the surgeon, your life might turn out to be worthwhile – but only coincidentally. Is this enough?