1.4.2 - Personal and Societal Obligations


Personal and Societal Obligations: Universalism & Particularism


As was suggested by the preceding activity, people struggle with how to balance obligations to family, friends, and colleagues on the one hand, and obligations to the wider society on the other. In cases where these obligations conflict, the people of different cultures are often on different sides of this dichotomy.

The two sides of this dimension of human experience are known as universalism and particularism. No culture is exclusively universalist or particularist, but cultures do tend to be more one than the other, and while the attitudes of individuals in a given culture will vary, the focus here is on the culture as a whole.




Certain absolutes apply across the board, regardless of circumstances or the particular situation. Wherever possible, you should try to apply the same rules to everyone in like situations. To be fair is to treat everyone alike and not make exceptions for family, friends, or members of your in-group. Where possible, you should lay your personal feelings aside and look at the situation objectively. While life isnít necessarily fair, we can make it more fair by treating people the same way.




How you behave in a given situation depends on the circumstances. You treat family, friends, and your in-group the best you can, and you let the rest of the world take care of itself. Their in-groups will protect them. There canít be absolutes because everything depends on whom youíre dealing with. No one expects life to be fair. Exceptions will always be made for certain.






Particularism - Universalism Exercise

While The Accident is a useful and informative single event, the way a culture follows a Particularist model or a Universalist one has much wider implications. If you would like to see how you personally score on this scale, please take the following self-scoring quiz.


In the following exercise, check the statement that does not belong in the group of four, either because it reflects a universalist attitude and all the others are particularist, or vice versa:


1. Objectivity, not letting personal feelings affect decision making, is possible and desirable.

2. A deal is a deal, whatever happens.

3. Principles have to get bent once in a while.

4. The law is the law.


1. You donít compromise on principles.

2. Friends expect preferential treatment.

3. Subjectivity is the rule.

4. The logic of the heart is what counts.


1. People tend to hire friends and associates.

2. Consistency is desirable and possible.

3. Logic of the head is important.

4. Exceptions to the rule should be minimized.


1. Friends protect friends.

2. Life is neat, not messy.

3. Written contracts are not necessary.

4. This attitude is more consistent with collectivism.


1. Situational ethics are the norm.

2. A deal is a deal, until circumstances change.

3. Deals are made on the basis of personal relationships.

4. Justice is blind.

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