Universe of Obligation and Human Rights | Facing History & Ourselves
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Universe of Obligation and Human Rights

Students learn about universe of obligation, how individuals and nations define their responsibilities toward other people.   


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In preparation to learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is important to engage students in a conversation about how individuals and nations define their responsibilities toward other people. In this lesson, students will learn about universe of obligation, a term that 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  

The activities invite students to think about the people for whom they feel responsible and help them 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.
  • What is a right
  • What rights should belong to every human being on earth?
  • 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 is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 handout
  • 1 reading, available in English and Spanish
  • 1 extension activity

Organizing ourselves into groups is a natural behavior. Being part of a group helps to meet our most basic needs: we might 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. 

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, individuals, groups, and nations began to reevaluate the responsibility they felt toward others. The horrors of the war, the new and frightening power of the atomic bomb, and the Nazi genocide of Jews and of others deemed unworthy to live shocked the consciences of people all over the world. As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “In the end . . . we are ‘One World’ and that which injures any one of us, injures all of us.”

After the war, diplomats and politicians launched many efforts that they hoped would prevent future atrocities, including the United Nations, the Nuremberg Trials, the Genocide Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each of these initiatives aimed to redefine the responsibilities of all governments and individuals toward other people in the world; they required a shift in the way people and nations understood what sociologist Helen Fein calls their “universe of obligation.” Fein defines this important concept as the circle of individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].” Her ideas refer specifically to how nations perceive their responsibilities to citizens.

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 other individuals that a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This helps us consider 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 and compassionate manner.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Some of the activities in this lesson require students to record potentially sensitive or personal information. Note that students might 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 asking them to divulge the personal reflections they made about who is included in (or excluded from) their individual universes of obligation.    

Students will be introduced to a concept of human behavior—universe of obligation—and learn how to use it to analyze the ways that individuals and societies determine who is deserving of respect and whose rights are worthy of protection.

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Lesson Plan


  • Ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompt: 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?
  • Debrief 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.
  • Pose the following questions for students to discuss in pairs and then as a class:
    • Why do humans so often divide themselves into groups? 
    • When is this a good thing? When is it harmful?
  • Introduce the concept of universe of obligation by 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. 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 may have taught specific annotation strategies that you want your students to use. Or you can have students do the following: 
    • Draw a heart by moments in the text that resonate with you, perhaps because of who you are or your experiences in the world.
    • Add a question mark in places where you feel confused, perhaps because you don’t understand a vocabulary term or the author assumes you know something you don’t know.
    • Underline places in the text that help you understand the costs and benefits that can come with belonging to a group.
  • Move students into small groups to discuss the connection questions. Assign each group one of the first four questions and have them present their ideas to the class. Then discuss the fifth question together.
  • Finally, ask students to illustrate their own universe of obligation using the handout Universe of Obligation Graphic Organizer. The concentric circles on this handout can help students visualize 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 organizer, including family, friends, neighbors, classmates, strangers in one’s town, and others. You can also model by starting your own universe of obligation on the board. 
  • Have students meet in groups of two or three to discuss their experience of trying to illustrate their universe of obligation. 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 ones were easy?
    • Under what conditions might your universe of obligation change? 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 school, community, or country?

The next lesson builds on a foundational understanding of universe of obligation. To gauge what, if anything, you need to reteach, have students complete a “How Many Bars?” exit ticket. 2 You can project the following prompt that students answer on notebook paper or create a handout that you collect at the end of the lesson. 

After today’s lesson on universe of obligation, I have . . .

_________ Full bars: I get it, loud and clear!

_________ Two bars: I’m in and out with this. I only get some of the information.

_________ No bars: No signal. Dropped call. 

Specifically, here is where I need better “coverage” in order to increase my bars . . .

  • 2 Adapted from Kristina J. Doubet and Jessica A. Hockett, Differentiation in Middle and High School (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2015), 168.

Extension Activities

Deepen the discussion of group membership and belonging by introducing additional readings and opportunities for 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 that 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. The following questions can 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

Quick Downloads

Students use the following handout in this lesson.

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