The cornerstone of a meaningful, effective life is action. We should always strive to be more compassionate and convert our passion into concrete acts that contribute to the welfare of all living beings.

But even if accept this statement as a principle to guide our lives, the challenge of choosing the right action remains. In a complex world, a commitment to virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Without careful analysis, our passion may turn into a vicious cycle of self-aggrandizement and arrogance.

Effective action requires setting virtuous long-term goals and aiming for practical “small wins” that contribute to that goal. I am going to focus on the long-term goals here and return to the question of small wins later (for my academic research on small wins in climate policy, see Urpelainen 2013).

My view is that our long-term goal should be a compassionate society. It is important not to define our goals in abstract or tangential terms, such as economic growth or technological progress. The long-term goals need to reflect the ultimate goal of welfare of all living beings. For example, economic growth may even reduce the welfare of all living beings if it causes extinction or species or encourages factory farming. In this case, economic growth is not desirable.

My principles for a compassionate society are simple:

  • Our policies and actions should protect life and avoid suffering.
  • Our compassion should never be limited to human beings.
  • We should always focus on improving the lot of the destitute and the suffering. 
  • Public service is our greatest innovation and the key to a fulfilling life.

These principles are simple, but their application in reality is difficult. We often face trade-offs. Here are some very real moral dilemmas that I have faced in my own work:

  1. A planned meat-processing facility can alleviate poverty in a poor country by creating well-paying jobs, but the country’s regulations to prevent animal suffering leave a lot to be desired. Should we support the facility or campaign against it?
  2. A coal-burning power plant could eradicate energy poverty and reinvigorate local industry in a poor country, but coal carries a heavy environmental cost and contributes to climate change. Should an international development agency give a loan guarantee to enable the construction of the power plant?

Despite these trade-offs, principles are important. Without clear principles, we focus our attention on the wrong things and have no idea how to deal with trade-offs. For example, a development economist who is only interested in economic growth could cause a lot of suffering by ignoring other dimensions of a good society. Similarly, an environmentalist who has no compassion for human beings could stand in the way of improvements to the condition of the world’s poor.