1 class period

Understanding Universe of Obligation

Essential Questions

  • How do groups, communities, and nations define who belongs and who does not?
  • How do individuals define the continuum of people for whom they feel responsible?  
  • 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?


This lesson uses resources from Chapter 2 of Holocaust and Human Behavior to prompt students to explore the ways that individuals, groups, communities, and nations define who belongs and who does not. The activities that follow examine what it means to belong by introducing the idea of a “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]

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.

Learning Goals

  • Students will recognize that a society’s universe of obligation includes those people who that society believes are deserving of respect and whose rights it believes are worthy of protection.
  • Students will understand that a society’s universe of obligation often changes, expanding or shrinking depending on circumstances such as peace and prosperity or war and economic depression.


Teaching Strategies


  1. Respond to Quotations
    • Begin the lesson by asking students to choose one of the following three quotations to write about in their journals:
      • Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (as paraphrased by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks): “Our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society, and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them."[2]
      • Nineteenth-century sociologist William Graham Sumner: “Every man and woman in society has one big duty. That is, to take care of his or her own self.”[3]
      • Scholar and social activist Chuck Collins: “Of course, we have to respond to our immediate family, but, once they’re O.K., we need to expand the circle. A larger sense of family is a radical idea, but we get into trouble as a society when we don’t see that we’re in the same boat.” [4]
    • After copying one of these quotations into their journals, students should respond to the following questions about it:
      • What is the author’s vision of community?
      • What responsibilities and obligations do individuals have to each other, according to this author?
      • Do you agree with the author’s statement? Are there any parts of the statement that make you feel uncomfortable?
    • After writing in their journals, students should discuss and share their thinking using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy.
  2. Illustrate an Individual "Universe of Obligation"
    • Read this Universe of Obligation overview with the class. Discuss the Connection Questions that follow the reading, and then give each student a copy of the Universe of Obligation handout. Give students time to follow the instructions and complete the activity on the handout.
    • Have students meet in groups of two or three to discuss their experience of trying to illustrate their universes of obligation. In their discussions, they should address the following questions:
      • What was the experience of illustrating 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 responsibility shift?
      • What is the difference between an individual’s universe of obligation and that of a school, community, or country?
  3. Illustrate a Group's "Universe of Obligation"
    Repeat the second activity, above, this time asking each student to choose a group to which he or she belongs—such as a school, neighborhood, or country—and illustrate that group’s universe of obligation. Again, students can conclude the activity by sharing their thinking with two or three classmates and discussing the same questions listed above, this time in relation to the group universe of obligation they illustrated.


Sources & Notes

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

[2] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002), 30.

[3] William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe Each Other (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1884), 98.

[4] Quoted in Ian Parker, “The Gift,” New Yorker, August 2, 2004, 60.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.