A society’s universe of obligation can change. Individuals and groups that are respected and protected members of a society at one time may find themselves outside the universe of obligation when circumstances are different. Societies with governments dedicated to democratic values and human rights tend to define their universes of obligation in a more expansive and inclusive manner than other societies do. Yet, even within democratic countries, political movements and ideologies based on nationalism, racism, or antisemitism can take hold and lead a society toward a more narrow definition of whose rights and privileges deserve protection and whose do not. In times of crisis—such as war or economic depression—societies also tend to define more narrowly who is truly “one of us” and whose loyalty should be under suspicion, making them undeserving of protection and respect. Those individuals or groups who fall outside a nation’s universe of obligation become vulnerable not only to being deprived of the rights, privileges, and economic benefits afforded to citizens but also to expulsion, physical harm, and, in the most extreme cases, genocide (as Helen Fein warned when she articulated this concept).
Although Fein conceived of the term to describe the way nations determine membership, we might also refer to an individual’s universe of obligation to describe the circle of other individuals that a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. Doing this gives us the opportunity to recognize the internalized hierarchies that influence how we think about and respond to the needs of others. While it is neither practical nor possible that one’s universe of obligation could include everyone in the center, or the position of most importance, acknowledging the way we think about and prioritize our obligations toward others can help us act in a more thoughtful, compassionate manner.
In this lesson, students will consider their own universes of obligation, as well as those of groups and nations to which they belong. This lesson will prepare students to apply this key concept to a historical case study in their Facing History unit or course and to reflect on the way they view others and make sense of the society in which they live.