Defining Our Obligations to Others | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
A chalkboard with a hand-drawn Universe of Obligation diagram of concentric circles on it.

Defining Our Obligations to Others

Students are introduced to the concept of universe of obligation to better understand how societies create "in" groups and "out" groups.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Culture & Identity


About This Lesson

In the previous lessons, students explored the human tendency to create “in” and “out” groups, and the consequences of that behaviour in the face of difference. They also considered how groups, like individuals, have identities and how the way a group defines itself determines who is entitled to the benefits of belonging and who is not. In this final lesson exploring the theme of “we” and “they,” students will learn a new concept—universe of obligation—the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” 1 Understanding the concept of universe of obligation provides important insights into the behaviour of individuals, groups, and nations throughout history. It also helps students think more deeply about the benefits of being part of a society’s “in” group and the consequences of being part of an “out” group. The activities in this lesson both ask students to think about the people for whom they feel responsible and help students analyse the ways that their society designates who is worthy of respect and caring and who is not.

  • 1Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.

How do our beliefs about difference influence the ways in which we see and choose to interact with each other?

  • What factors influence the extent to which we feel an obligation to help others?
  • How does the way we view others influence our feelings of responsibility toward them?

Students will apply a new concept of human behaviour—universe of obligation—to analyse how individuals and societies determine who is deserving of respect and whose rights are worthy of protection.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 1 handout
  • 1 reading

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.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Some of the activities in this lesson require students to record what may be sensitive or personal information. Note that students may feel uncomfortable sharing their completed handouts for Activity 3, and we do not recommend requiring them to do so. Instead, we encourage asking students to share their thought processes as they completed the exercise, rather than divulging the personal reflections they made about who is included (or excluded) in their universes of obligation.

This is the final lesson in the “We and They” section of this scheme of work. See the Unit Assessment for a project you can use to reinforce students learning on this theme after completing this lesson.

Defining Our Obligations to Others

Use these slides with students to introduce them to the concept of universe of obligation to better understand how societies create "in" groups and "out" groups.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans


  • Tell students that in this lesson, they will be learning about a concept of human behaviour called universe of obligation.
  • Before explaining the universe of obligation, ask your students to make a pictorial representation using images, words, and phrases of the concept based on their understanding of “universe” and “obligation” and what those words might mean when used together in this way.
  • Then ask students to share their pictorial representations with a partner in a Think, Pair, Share before moving to the next activity.
  • Introduce the concept universe of obligation to students by first explaining that it is one way to consider the benefits of belonging to groups and the consequences of being excluded. An individual or group’s universe of obligation represents the extent to which they feel responsible for others, and we often feel a greater sense of responsibility for those who belong to the same groups that we do.
  • Hand out the reading Universe of Obligation and read it aloud. You might pause after each paragraph to check for understanding and ask students to underline one sentence in the paragraph that helps them better understand the benefits and costs of group membership or universe of obligation. Ask one or two students to share what they underlined and explain why before moving to the next paragraph.
  • This reading includes quotations including perspectives from three people—philosopher David Hume, activist Chuck Collins, and social scientist William Graham Sumner (connections question #4). Next, re-read the quotations from each of these three people to the class, and then discuss with students the following questions:
    • In what ways do these three people agree? In what ways do they disagree?
    • Which of these people seems to have the most inclusive universe of obligation? Which seems to have the most exclusive? Is it possible for everyone in the world to be included in an individual or country’s universe of obligation? If not, how should we prioritise?
    • Time allowing, in small groups or as a class, discuss one or more of the Universe of Obligation reading’s connection questions.
  • Finally, ask students to illustrate their own universes of obligation using the handout Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser. The concentric circles on this handout can help students visualise and draw what an individual, group, or country’s universe of obligation might look like.
  • Give students time to follow the instructions and complete the activity on the handout. It might be helpful to first quickly brainstorm a variety of types of individuals and groups that might appear on one’s graphic organiser, including family, friends, neighbours, classmates, strangers in one’s town and more.
  • Have students meet in groups of two or three to discuss their experience of trying to illustrate their universes of obligation (See Notes to the Teacher). In their discussions, students should address some of the following questions:
    • What was the experience of drawing your universe of obligation like?
    • What did you think about when deciding where to place certain groups in your universe of obligation? Which decisions were difficult? Which were easy?
    • Under what conditions might your universe of obligation shift?
    • What might cause you to move some groups to the centre and others to the outside? What is the difference between an individual’s universe of obligation and that of a school, community, or country?

Ask students to respond to the following prompt in a journal response:

How does learning about an individual or group’s universe of obligation help you think about one of the following stories or moments in a new, different, or deeper way?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

The handout below is used in the Defining Our Obligations to Others lesson plan.

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