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Right Action in Systems Design

By Paola Di Maio
Buddhistdoor Global | 2018-01-19 |

After Right Aspiration and Right Speech, the Noble Eightfold Path prompts followers to adopt Right Action. Right Speech can also be adopted as a kind of Right Action, where one's voice and linguistic faculties are used, with awareness, to support enlightened intention.

Right Action can, in a broad sense, be interpreted as “ethical conduct,” yet much of what is considered “right” and “ethical” depends on context; the simple notion of ethics—what is considered ethical behaviour—varies across societies and cultures, influenced by different beliefs, worldviews, and social norms. Vast differences exist between Asian and Western cultures, from table manners to daily communication and interaction, but there are also differences within cultures that are based on education, socio-economic background, and so on.

Furthermore, wrongdoing and “evil deeds” are sometimes carried out in good faith. Dictators, for instance, might choose to kill those who disagree with them because they think such action is good for the country to get rid of dissent. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. Even religions can be misleading and can lead people to believe that killing, repression, and harsh judgments are justified if the motives are considered great and noble. The Buddhadharma, however, can help guide ethical conduct and right action, irrespective of subjective customs and cultures.

At the basic level, Right Conduct can described as refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and indulging in intoxicating substances. In practice, however, even these simple precepts can become paradoxically fuzzy in certain contexts. Tibetan Buddhists, for example, including lamas held in high esteem, have no problem eating meat and use alcohol generously in their rituals. And scenes of the primordial union of of wisdom and compassion (Tib. yab-yum) feature in countless sacred murals, paintings, sculptures, and carvings.

As a general guideline, Right Action can be viewed as adherence to the six paramitas (the six perfections):

•  Generosity (dana-paramita)
•  Morality (shila-paramita)
•  Patience (kshanti-paramita)
•  Energy, effort (virya-paramita)
•  Meditation (dhyana-paramita)
•  Wisdom (prajna-paramira)*

For more committed sangha members, Right Action consists of adherence to different sets of lay and/or monastic vows, which relate more specifically to Right Conduct in relation to one's commitment to practice, also referred to as samaya. In lay life, and in certain professions, Right Action is generally spelled out as a “code of conduct” or “code of ethics.” 

Right action in systems

In technology systems, Right Action can be seen as “correct function,” that is: a technical system should function as intended, and all design and engineering activities undertaken during its development and operation should be aimed at supporting the correct functioning of the system.

A system is said to be working correctly if its behavior is within its dependability specification in a non-malicious environment. For example, a fingerprint reader is a correct system if it always (or with a high probability) recognize an honest user A as A but never recognizes another honest user B as A.(Ahmed and Jensen 2012, 142)   

Generally speaking, Right Action in a technical system is defined as an appropriate response: correct in terms of comprehensibility of data and language, and timely output.

In linear systems, this is possible only if the “correct input” is given by a user. In highly evolved and more complex systems, one can use error correction techniques, which attempt to give the right output even when the input is incorrect or unclear, but this technique it is still in its early days. Technology design cannot be completely trusted to effectively correct errors without introducing further errors.

Right Action in systems development means that the technology should fulfil its intended purpose, and should do so in the simplest way possible, using the minimum amount of  resources. In engineered systems, this means achieving the desired technical functionality, as well as the usefulness of its functions and transparency of operation. End users, who are generally the intended recipients of the technical capabilities of the systems, should benefit from their correct functioning as well as from some level of understanding of how the system works.

A vast array of structured techniques, corresponding to different developmental phases and methods, exist to ensure a system’s correct behaviour. One of the structured development processes, typically referred to as the systems development lifecycle approach, starts from identifying stakeholders, and then moves to analyse the problem it is trying to solve, defining the requirements of a functional system and designing system components, behaviors, and outcomes. Causal and feedback loops are other examples of techniques used to model and predict system behaviors and can be applied to shape ethical behaviour.  Various validation and testing techniques are also used for this purpose.

Systems engineering even breaks down what might go wrong with technology by providing a detailed characterization of different types of errors and defects: “A mistake in coding is called [an] error, [an] error found by a tester is called [a] defect, [a] defect accepted by [the] development team is called a bug, [if the] build does not meet the requirements then it is [a] failure.” ** (The Official 360logica Blog)

It is of great importance to understand the correlation between the structure of a system and its behavior: the way the design or organization of a system, either technologies or organizations, impacts the way it behaves, especially when it comes to user interactions—that is, the social behaviour of the system.

Systemists, engineers, and programmers with an appreciation for the Dharma and, more generally, for ethics, should be able to think of many ways in which Right Action, guided by Dharmic principles, can inspire and to some extent even guide correct system functioning and usability: systems can be designed to leverage and support ethics, and to inform and increase knowledge. Some of the principles contained in the six paramitas are applicable to systems design.

It may be critical to the future (and possibly the survival) of humanity to learn how to leverage the techniques of engineering to maximise the diffusion of ethics and adherence to the paramitas, so that ethics is implemented across social and organisational processes.

The aspiration and motivation behind this column is to discuss the potential that lies in the application of the highly structured and reliable concepts and techniques from systems engineering to serve constructive and peaceful aims.

Would it not be wonderful if the tools and approaches affording ultimate efficiency in systems could be used to propagate compassion, empathy, generosity, and kindness with both speed and precision?

* For further descriptions of the paramitas please see: http://www.rinpoche.com/teachings/paramitas.htm

** Please see Handbook of Reliability Engineering for a further description of various errors and defects.


Ahmed, Naveed, and Christian Damsgaard Jensen (2012) “Security of Dependable Systems” in Dependability and Computer Engineering: Concepts for Software-Intensive Systems. Edited by Luigia Petre, Kaisa Sere, and‎ Elena Troubitsyna. 230–64. Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

See more

The Graduated Path to Liberation (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive)
Right Action (samma-kammanta) (Tai Xu Library)
Difference between Defect, Error, Bug, Failure and Fault! (The Official 360logica Blog)
Buddha’s Right Action (Buddhism Guide)

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