Compassionate System Design

How to design a more compassionate system for our world

If you were full of idealistic ambition and decided that you wanted to have the greatest possible impact in promoting a gentler future for our planet, where would you begin? A starting point would be to establish your ethical framework, based on a deep contemplation about what matters, even though no ethical framework can have the precision or certainty of a mathematical system. You might then try to translate this framework into a concrete vision of what it could look like if applied in practice to our world. You would then want to draw on research findings from a wide range of disciplines to try to determine the kinds of interventions with the greatest likelihood of success in pushing the system in this direction.

Clary's blue buddha detail

“Stillness” by Clary Meserve

Direct interventions to help others might seem the safest way of using our time – there is no surer or more immediate way to reduce suffering than rescuing a human or animal in distress, or providing a life-saving treatment to someone suffering from a debilitating disease. But higher-level “meta” interventions can potentially have a greater numerical impact, recruiting more people to the same cause or changing the characteristics of the system we are part of. These interventions are riskier for various reasons: for example, our assumptions about how the system works may be wrong, there may be unforeseen events that make our interventions counter-productive, or we may be less effective than other people whose efforts we compete with for funding or attention. But ultimately, given the extreme amount of suffering that persists in the world, there is no choice but to try to design a better system, through reason, trial-and-error and constant improvements. And as we accumulate more data, we gain confidence in our understanding of how the system works and how we can have impact in changing it for the better.

Systems theorist Donella Meadows noted that the values embodied by a system are more important than the specific details of how the system functions, and that one of the most powerful leverage points is at the level of paradigm shifts – showing the failings of the old paradigm, and introducing new people who embrace the new paradigm into positions of power. A key goal of Compassionate System Design is to promote the prevention of intense suffering as a global priority, and to help prepare a new generation of empathetic, rationally-minded leaders who strongly identify with this deep ethical value.