Collecting ourselves into groups is a natural behaviour. Being part of a group helps to meet our most basic needs: we share culture, values, and beliefs, and we satisfy our yearning to belong. Like individuals, groups have identities. How a group defines itself determines who is entitled to its benefits and who is not. Sometimes the consequences of being excluded from a group are minor or harmless. For example, someone who does not enjoy running is unlikely to be affected by not being a member of a running club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even dire. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, their freedom, livelihood, or safety may be at risk. Moreover, 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 such as nationalism, racism, or antisemitism can take hold and lead to 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 “one of us” and whose loyalty is now under suspicion, making them undeserving of protection and respect. 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 in the 1970s).
Although Fein conceived of the term to describe the way nations determine membership, we can also recognise that individuals have a universe of obligation—the circle of individuals a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This helps us recognise the internalised 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 its centre (the position of most importance), acknowledging the way we think about and prioritise our obligations towards others can help us act in a more thoughtful and compassionate manner.