Universe of Obligation | Facing History & Ourselves
Picture of universe of obligation drawn on a chalkboard.

Universe of Obligation

Students learn a new concept, universe of obligation, and use it to analyze the ways that their society designates who is deserving of respect and caring.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students build on their previous discussion about stereotypes by examining why humans form groups and what it means to belong. This examination begins the second stage of the Facing History scope and sequence, “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 behavior 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 ask students to think about the people for whom they feel responsible. The activities also help students analyze the ways that their society designates who is worthy of respect and caring and who is not.

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

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • 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 behavior—universe of obligation—to analyze how individuals and societies determine who is deserving of respect and whose rights are worthy of protection.
  • Students will recognize 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.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 1 teaching strategies
  • 1 reading, available in English and Spanish
  • 1 handout
  • 1 assessment 
  • 1 extensions 

Collecting ourselves into groups is a natural behavior. 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 track club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even dire. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, his or her 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 recognize that individuals have a universe of obligation—the circle of individuals a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This concept helps us 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 its center (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.

During this lesson, students will examine their universe of obligation, as well as those of groups and nations to which they belong. By investigating the “us and them” dynamic that so often plays out in all of our lives and throughout history, students will be better prepared to analyze and understand the histories of the Armenian Genocide, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust.

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.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Universe of obligation
  • Responsibility
  • Membership

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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.

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after you complete this lesson, proceed to Introducing the Writing Prompt. 

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Lesson Plan


  • Ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompt and then respond to the accompanying questions. You can project and reveal the prompt and then the questions one at a time to allow students to focus on each one.
    Think about a group you belong to. It might be your family, a team, a faith community, a club, a classroom, an online community, or some other type of group.
    • How did you become a member of that group?
    • Did you choose to be a member, or are you one automatically?
    • What do you gain by belonging to that group?
    • What, if anything, do you have to give up or hide about yourself to be a member?
  • Briefly debrief the prompt by asking students to share some of the things they gain by belonging to groups and some of the things they give up in order to belong. Honor student privacy and refrain from requiring all students to share their responses in detail.
  • Then pose a new question to students:  Why do humans so often divide themselves into groups? When is this a good thing? When is it harmful?Give students a few minutes to respond in their journals, and then discuss the question using the Think, Pair, Share strategy.
  • Introduce the concept of universe of obligation to students, and explain that it is one way to consider the benefits of belonging to groups and the consequences of being excluded. An individual’s or group’s universe of obligation represents the extent to which they feel responsible for others. We often feel a greater sense of responsibility for those who belong to the same groups that we do.
  • Pass out the reading Universe of Obligation and read it aloud.  
  • This reading includes quotations that feature the perspectives of three people: David Hume, Chuck Collins, and William Graham Sumner (connection question 4). Reread the quotations from each of these 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 a person’s or a country’s universe of obligation? If not, how should we prioritize?
  • Finally, ask students to illustrate their own universes of obligation using the graphic organizer on the Universe of Obligation handout. The concentric circles on this handout can help students visualize and diagram 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 first to quickly brainstorm a variety of types of individuals and groups that might appear on one’s graphic organizer, including family, friends, neighbors, classmates, strangers in one’s town, and others.  
  • Have students meet in groups of two or three to discuss their experience of trying to illustrate their universes of obligation. In their discussions, students should address some of the following questions:
    • What was the experience of diagramming 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 center and others to the outside?
    • What is the difference between an individual’s universe of obligation and that of a community or nation?

End the lesson by discussing the following questions as a class so students can start to think about the ideas they will explore as they begin to look at histories involving exclusion, discrimination, and violence in the lessons that follow:

  • What factors influence the way a society defines its universe of obligation?
  • In what ways might a nation or community signal who is part of its universe of obligation and who is not?
  • What do you think might be some of the consequences for those who are not within a society’s universe of obligation?


  • Due to their personal nature, we do not recommend using students’ individual universe of obligation graphic organizers for assessment. Instead, gauge their understanding of the concept by asking each student to complete a separate universe of obligation handout, this time illustrating a group to which he or she belongs, such as a school, neighborhood, or country.
  • Observe the group discussions at the end of the lesson to understand how students are responding to the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in attempting to define explicitly one’s universe of obligation. 

Extension Activities 

 You might deepen the discussion of groups and belonging in this lesson by introducing additional readings from Chapter 2 of Holocaust and Human Behavior for student discussion and reflection. The reading What Do We Do with a Difference? includes a poem that raises important questions about the ways we respond to differences. In the reading Understanding Strangers, journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski discusses the ways the earliest humans likely responded to “the Other” and suggests models for how we can constructively respond to unfamiliar groups of people today. Both readings and their related connection questions can help support a larger class discussion about the human behavior of dividing ourselves into groups. You might use the following question to guide the discussion:

Why do humans so often divide themselves into “we” and “they”? When does it become a problem? What historical examples help you answer this question? What examples from the world today help you answer it?

Materials and Downloads

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This is the handout that students use throughout the Universe of Obligation lesson plan.

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Universe of Obligation
Help your students map out their own universe of obligation with this printable handout.

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Universe of Obligation
Help your students map out their own universe of obligation with this printable handout.

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