Part 4: Ethics Begins with Compassion

Natalie MuyresArticles

by Nick Kalogirou

This is part four of a six part series on ethics for the Human Venture blog.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong conduct. Why should we bother to conduct ourselves in the right manner?

Fundamentally, right conduct can be grounded in the existential reality of suffering. We would like to avoid suffering, because we know what it is like to suffer ourselves. 

We are familiar with many forms of pain – physical, social, emotional, to name a few. Suffering can overtake our whole being . As individuals and communities, we suffer heartbreak, loss, in sorrow, and in ill fortune. We are deeply and fearfully aware of our death. We often can feel a deep sense of powerlessness. As an aggregate, we can go through loss, disruption, despair, decay, breakdown, and even extinction. 

By recognizing suffering, we are called not just to empathize, but to act to help alleviate the suffering, within others and ourselves. We have a very human desire to prevent and alleviate these harms. This is evident in the well known golden rule, “treat others as you want to be treated”. Humans have an innate capacity for compassion, which literally means ‘to suffer with’. Compassion allows ourselves to be moved by suffering, and experiencing the motivation to help alleviate and prevent it1.

Compassion is more than a feeling – it is also thought and action2. We not only strive to relieve suffering, but to prevent it (good intentions aren’t enough). Preventing suffering requires far more than just a feeling; it requires awareness and intelligent action. Compassion taken far enough pushes the boundaries of caring, aiding the prevention of needless suffering or wastage of human potential3.

Without compassion and care, we won’t bother with ethics. If we don’t care, we won’t act. If we care, we have a chance at wisely holding the tension of right and wrong, acting our best in the face of uncertainty and challenge.

In this piece I’m going to talk about:

– where the roots of care and compassion come from

– how care, ethics, and power collide

– duty to care in professional ethics, engineering, and technology ethics

– widening the circle of compassion

The Roots of Compassion

Humans emerged as small troop primates approximately 300,000 years ago4. We have inherited characteristics like in-group/out group dynamics, dominance competitions, nurturing our young, and group cohesion5.

Cooperation is a hallmark human trait. Even though we did not have the largest brains on the African savannah, our survival was greatly aided by our ability to cooperate with each other. “Humans are hardwired for […] solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”6. On a very deep level of our programming, we are built for an environment of a small band with repeated interactions. In general, we would rather work together and have friends. Caring for others in our troop is an ancient act that has helped us adapt over the millennia and flourish as a species.

The challenge starts when we expand the circle of caring beyond our capacity. Expanding our circle of caring requires continual exponential leaps:

– I care about not just myself, but I also care about you.

– I care about my family, and I also care about the whole tribe

– I care about all tribes ~ I care about all life

Dunbar’s number proposes that in our early history we coalesced in tribes which numbered roughly up to 150 humans7. To get past this social limit, we invented stories – myths – to expand our sense of who is in, and out, of the tribe. Christianity, nationalism, and capitalism are all examples of stories that enable humanity to cooperate in a stable fashion at greater scales. Figuring out how to cooperate across organizations, nations and the globe has enabled humanity to develop capacities that have the potential to reduce or to cause suffering at previously unimaginable scales.

As we continue to propagate as a species, we are always having a conversation about how to sustainably live with many tribes on this single planet. Instead of 150 people, we now legitimately have to answer the questions of how to globally coordinate 8 billion people on a planet with other life and a fragile biosphere.

Our aspirations for care, however, always lie further beyond our ability to actually care. There is a line in the sand of caring, whether we like it or not. Our finite caring capacity leaves some to be cared for, and others not. This is a tension that never ends because there are no bounds to who and what it is possible to include in your sphere of caring.

Knowing who and what we can care for, clearly seeing that tension and trying to reason our way through the conflicts in a wise manner, is the practice of ethics.

Power and the Practice of Ethics

Sam Rayburn once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” This illuminates the fact that there are many more possible harmful scenarios than there are beneficial scenarios. With an increasing imbalance of power, there is an increasing potential for abuses of power.

In humans it has been found that a “sense of power disrupts what is known as mirroring, a mental process which plays a key role in empathy”8 and “one of the effects of power, myriad studies show, is that it makes you see others in a negative light”9. Power has the potential to disrupt our compassion and caring. The potential combination of disruption of care and an asymmetry of power creates scenarios where the less powerful are vulnerable to harmful consequences.

Societies around the world have developed broad ideas of what appropriate and aspirational care should look like. When we trust powerful individuals, families, corporations, governments, we expect them to care about our well being in a well reasoned manner.

Preventing and alleviating suffering can occur in both scope and time. Everything is always part of a nested situation – which is to say, there’s always a larger story that anything is embedded within. Benefits and harms happen over different times and time spans. From families, to workplaces, to nations, to our species, we live out multiple stories and multiple consequences at once.

Imagine attaching a weight to the free lever of consequences above. There are always varying levels of consequences on varying levels of scope going on at the same time. What complicates matters here, is that it is not obvious what the right balance between consequences is, especially as we think further out in time. What is clear though is that “with great power there must also come great responsibility”.

Professional Ethics

Professionals are an example of a community of practitioners that we expect to care about the well-being of those within their scope of practice. Professionals hold relatively great power – from designing a bridge to holding a therapy session – which if abused, could cause seriously harmful consequences for the public. We have created professional organizations with codes of ethics to respond to this; this is part aspirational, part legal.

At its most restrictive, there is a red line where a professional could be stripped of their ability to practice – an enforced standard of caring, potentially paired with legal consequences. At its most ineffectual, a code of ethics merely serves as a form of signaling which does nothing to functionally reduce harm while upholding the status  quo. At its best, a code of ethics guides practitioners to competent, wise conduct, mindfully using power for humble progress.

Engineering Ethics

My own professional body of engineering, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), has a Guideline for Ethical Practice (released February 2013). I recently reviewed this document, and the following statements stuck out to me.

“In an increasingly technological world, the public is looking to engineers and geoscientists to provide societal leadership. The professional relationship of trust is a fundamental element as we do our part in guiding society to adopt technology for the advancement of human welfare.”10

Guideline for Ethical Practice, v2.2

Why look to engineers to provide societal leadership? Because technology bestows great powers upon those who wield it. Engineers should have extra societal scrutiny because they design, operate and maintain instruments of power. While they may not ultimately wield the technology, they have an essential part to play in caring about the use and potential abuse of the technology.

The claim here is that current society holds a value of human well-being. We claim to care about human advancement. This is enshrined in the statement:

“Professional engineers and geoscientists shall, in their areas of practice, hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public, and have regard for the environment.”11

Guideline for Ethical Practice, v2.2

This is perhaps the most often quoted and memorable line of the guideline. There is a clear aspiration of care in the presence of power in this statement for the public and environment. If an engineer completely disregards this care, punishments may be enforced. How much an engineer ‘holds paramount’ is the difficult tension between care and power.

Codes of ethics need to change over time to respond to newly identified threats and opportunities. In previous versions of the APEGA Guideline for Ethical practice, there was not nearly as much emphasis on the environmental impacts of our work. Recent edits in the 21st century have since added language to include the environment. Societal awareness changed – sparking compassion, care, slowly changing values, and eventually making its way into the guideline for ethical practice. Society’s circle of care broadened, and the profession responded by integrating that value into the code of ethics.

“Competence and ethical conduct are two indivisible components in maintaining a relationship of trust with clients and with the public.”12

Guideline for Ethical Practice, v2.2

There is a recognition that technical competence, without ethical conduct, breaks down trust between the public and the profession. Said another way – power without ongoing care breeds mistrust. It is easy to see why this is the case with numerous examples of technologies past and present that have inflicted great harm and taken away from the advancement of human welfare.

Progressive Care

“But what we require is a more expansive compassion; a more imaginative compassion; one that acts over the long term, recognizing the humanity of people in distant times as well as distant places.”

Toby Ord

Professional ethics is just one branch of applied ethics we can learn from for what it takes to wisely use our power. You don’t need a professional body to practice ethics – you just need some curiosity, some humility, and the motivation to care. A motivation to be attuned with suffering, and to the desire to act compassionately in the face of that suffering. If you push your compassion and caring far enough, you will inevitably run into scenarios where there are uncomfortable tradeoffs between personal and public well being, or short term versus long term welfare.

Compassion and care are crucial beginnings in the journey of ethics. Intentions can be misguided though, so many capacities are needed to follow through. Discovering the consequences, reasoning through the trade-offs, deciding a path, seeing what needs to be done and successfully acting are all powers that must be honed and developed to achieve ethical action.

Our caring is finite, but the journey of ethical action is not. Ethics, like science, is a trans-generational process that is completely open ended. Science is propelled by a human drive to understand the universe we are thrown into. Despite the complexities, we keep striving for more useful knowledge. Ethics is propelled by the human drive to care in a larger scope than ourselves. The complexity is enormous, but like science we as individuals and as humanity can persevere, preventing and alleviating suffering now and in the future.


Circle of hands [Photograph].

[1] Compassion. (2021, Nov 29). In Wikipedia.

[2] Low, K. (2016). Map 55: Tools of wisdom & judgment notes on compassion. Action Studies Institute. The Human Venture Institute mapbook (16th ed.). 

[3] Low, K. (2016). Map 40: Compassion. Action Studies Institute. The Human Venture Institute mapbook (16th ed.). 

[4] Human. (2021, Nov 29). In Wikipedia.

[5] Low, K. (2016). Map 81: Levels of adaptive learning and action. Action Studies Institute. The Human Venture Institute mapbook (16th ed.). 

[6] Bergman, R. (2020). Humankind: A hopeful history. Little, Brown, and Company.

[7] Dunbar’s number. (2021, Dec 9). In Wikipedia.

[8] Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M., & Obhi, S. S. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143(2), 755-62. doi:10.1037/a0033477

[9] Inesi, M. E., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Galinksy, A. D. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 795-803.

[10, 11, 12] Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta [APEGA]. (2013). Guideline for ethical practice: V2.2.

Suggested Resources

  • Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bergman (2020)
  • Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

Thanks to friends and the Human Venture Associate community for reading drafts of this article.

Nick Kalogirou is a Human Venture Leadership alumnus who likes to put technology, ethics, and communication together into understandable and useful stories. This article and other insights can be found on his website,