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.