Humanity is gripped by a crisis of identity, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, they fall into competing ideologies and power struggles. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly and in contrast to one another. Over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups has weakened the cohesion of society itself.1Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.
—The Universal House of Justice
The “crisis of identity” described by the Universal House of Justice is one of the defining features of the present moment. Questions of identity and belonging have surged to prominence in recent years, finding expression in virtually every aspect of collective life. As the forces of our decidedly global age challenge the boundaries, both literal and figurative, that define group identities, the secure sense of belonging these identities have traditionally supplied is increasingly frustrated or lost, resulting in confusion, insecurity, conflict, and ever more forceful assertions of difference. Paradoxically, even as the need for a deeply felt sense of human oneness has grown more obvious, categories of “us” and “them” have multiplied and become more salient around the globe.
Confronted with humanity’s crisis of identity, some thinkers have proposed the reimagination of national identity. A newly enlightened and capaciously inclusive form of nationalism, they suggest, can provide a shared context of belonging within which various narrower identities and attachments can be reconciled.2For example, see: Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instincts and the Fate of Nations (New York: Penguin Press, 2018); Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018); Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal (New York: Harper, 2017); Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and What We Can Do About It (New York: Penguin Press, 2022). But solutions rooted in national identity, or in other familiar concepts such as liberal democracy, are struggling to resolve the crisis.
From the perspective of the Bahá’í teachings, the solution to our crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of human oneness. Specifically, the Bahá’í writings suggest that only a collective identity3As social psychologists explain, identity is a (self-)categorization that holds significant emotional meaning, typically entailing thick ties of empathy, solidarity, belonging, and love. Ties of identity thus differ from other, more cerebral or emotionally thin bonds of universal human connection such as those that might result, for example, from a rational commitment to the equal moral worth of all persons. See Monroe, K. R., Hankin, J., & Van Vechten, R.B. (2000). The psychological foundations of identity politics. The Annual Review of Political Science, 3(1), 419-447. 2000. rooted in the oneness of humankind can resolve our present crisis and fundamentally relieve the various long-standing tensions that surround it. The previously cited passage from Universal House of Justice goes on to elaborate this point:
“Rival conceptions about the primacy of a particular people are peddled to the exclusion of the truth that humanity is on a common journey in which all are protagonists. Consider how radically different such a fragmented conception of human identity is from the one that follows from a recognition of the oneness of humanity. In this perspective, the diversity that characterizes the human family, far from contradicting its oneness, endows it with richness. Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity. It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.”4Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.
The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in this passage, and indeed throughout the Bahá’í writings, present a radical departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse. Many prominent conceptions of our shared humanity, and in particular, those that emerge from the predominant intellectual frameworks of the West, are widely deemed homogenizing. They are also critiqued for being too far removed from the texture of everyday life to hold any relevance for the communities and relationships to which people immediately belong. The Bahá’í teachings offer a different vision. Far from threatening or contradicting the essential diversity of humankind, the Bahá’í writings suggest that a universal human identity is uniquely equipped to ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular (i.e., narrower) identities, communities, and affiliations. This article considers why and how the Bahá’í expression of human oneness resolves both the collective crisis of identity we currently face and the long-assumed tension between the oneness and the diversity of humankind.
Humanity’s Crisis of Identity: Two Underlying Tensions
It would be helpful to begin by more closely examining the crisis itself. Two long standing tensions, or apparent contradictions, underlie humanity’s crisis of identity and complicate its resolution.
The first tension pertains directly to the nature of traditional group identities5In this article, the terms “group identity,” “collective identity,” “social identity,” and “identity” are used interchangeably. See footnote 3 for a brief explanation of what identity entails. themselves. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains in reference to the two-faced Roman god of duality, collective identities are “Janus-faced”: they are characterized by two contrasting aspects in chronic tension.6M. C. Nussbaum, “Toward a globally sensitive patriotism,” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 78-79. On the one hand, our traditional “bounded” identities—that is, identities that include some and exclude others—are deeply susceptible to instability, conflict, and destructiveness. Whether in the dividing lines of contemporary society or in the most catastrophic injustices of human history, collective identities can reveal an exceedingly ugly face. Observing the tensions that surround group identities, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah declares them “horsemen of the apocalypses from apartheid to genocide.”7K. A. Appiah, The lies that bind: Rethinking identity (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), xvi.
On the other hand, the diversity embodied in our bounded social identities is vital. At the aggregate level, various forms of diversity are essential to the strength, stability, and flourishing of social systems.8For example: A. L. Antonio, et al., “Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students,” Psychological Science 15, no. 8 (2004): 507-510; F. Arbab, “Promoting a discourse on science, religion, and development,” in The lab, the temple, and the market: Reflections at the intersection of science, religion, and development, ed. S. Harper (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2000), 149-237. Shared identities, furthermore, bind us together in social and moral enterprises, providing a basis for community, collective action, and mutual support. At a more personal and subjective level, our particular experiences and perspectives constitute important parts of our self-concept as human beings: they legitimately yearn for recognition, inclusion, and expression.
This dual nature of collective identity is also suggested in the Bahá’í writings. Shoghi Effendi, for instance, distinguishes unbridled nationalism from a “sane and legitimate patriotism,”9Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 and the Universal House of Justice describes “a love of one’s country that cannot be manipulated” and that “enriches one’s life.”10Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Universal House of Justice, letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this duality more explicit. “[D]ifferences, He writes, “are of two kinds. One is the cause of annihilation and is like the antipathy existing among warring nations and conflicting tribes who seek each other’s destruction … The other kind, which is a token of diversity, is the essence of perfection …”11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/583780535
These two sides of our traditional bounded identities leave them in a state of chronic tension and instability which has, to date, stubbornly evaded resolution. Social identities are perpetually vulnerable to destructiveness and conflict. And yet, we cannot live without them.
The tension that characterizes bounded identities is amplified by their relationship to forces and movements that are unbounded. Economic globalization in its various forms, the heightened ease of transborder communication, the growing universality of our moral intuitions, the expanding consciousness of human oneness and interdependence more broadly, not to mention the countless interdependencies that propagated a deadly virus across the globe, are all widely thought to threaten the security of our traditional identities and affiliations.12W. Brown, Walled states, waning sovereignty (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2010); C. Kinnvall “Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the Search for ontological security,” Political Psychology 25, no. 5 (2004): 741-767. Put differently: the legitimate yearning for rootedness and belonging is challenged by the porousness, fluidity, and expanded consciousness of an increasingly global age. The insecurity induced by these “universalizing” forces thus results in a more acutely felt yearning for the sense of rootedness traditional identities provide, as well as in the related impulse to bolster the security of these identities by sharpening the boundaries that define them. In other words, as our shared consciousness of the physical, social, moral, and economic space we inhabit as human beings is stretched to include the entire planet, humanity’s collective ambivalence toward its bounded identities both intensifies and becomes increasingly expressed in a second, broader tension between the universal and the particular—between the pull of bounded identities and attachments, on the one hand, and that of universalist forces and aspirations, on the other. This stubborn tension has led the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib to conclude, “Our fate, as late-modern individuals, is to live caught in the permanent tug of war between the vision of the universal and the attachments to the particular.”13S. Benhabib, The rights of others: Aliens, residents and citizens, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16.
At the heart of humanity’s crisis of identity, therefore, lies a key question: Can humanity’s fundamental oneness be reconciled with its essential diversity? And can such a reconciliation be achieved at the deepest levels of human identity and meaning? The answer proclaimed in the Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, is unequivocally affirmative: it is through the deeply felt recognition of human oneness that the diversity of humankind thrives and finds its highest fulfillment. Why might an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind be uniquely equipped to protect and promote its diversity?
Unique Features of an Identity Rooted in the Oneness of Humankind
To begin answering this question, I suggest that a collective identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind is qualitatively different than every other social identity because of at least two distinguishing features. These unique features, in turn, enable a universal human identity to stabilize and empower14Of course, not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be preserved or empowered. Identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness (for instance, those rooted in racial superiority or in some other form of antagonism toward others) must ultimately be abandoned. On this important point, see also footnotes 32 and 48 below. our particular identities in ways that other overarching affiliations—nationality, for example—cannot.
The first feature that distinguishes an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is rather obviously that it is non-exclusionary. Insofar as human beings and their communities are concerned, an identity genuinely rooted in our common humanity has no bounds of exclusion or parameters of otherness; it literally has no “other.”15What I wish to do in this article is to move away from the defensive posture that cosmopolitan theorists and other proponents of universalism often take to refute objections, and instead, lean into the notion of non-exclusion to identify its implications. Much has been written to question the possibility and meaningfulness of such a collective identity and, at a theoretical level at least, this skepticism has been ably addressed elsewhere. See, for example, A. Abizadeh, “Does collective identity presuppose and other? On the alleged incoherence of global solidarity,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 ,(2000): 45-60. This stands in contrast to all traditional social identities which, by definition, have outsiders, and are thus inescapably bounded and exclusionary.
I hasten to note that a non-exclusionary human identity need not cast humanity in opposition to non-human life on the planet, nor must it entail a sharp separation of human beings from their physical environment, precluding, for instance, the notion that we share a type of oneness with our ecosystem(s).16For an illuminating discussion of this topic, see P. Hanley, Eleven, (Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2014), especially Chapter 12. Indeed, a genuinely non-exclusionary human identity should lead to a deeper appreciation of our broader interdependence, rather than to a destructive anthropocentricism, which is often an expression of the very same attitudes and predispositions that animate the exclusion, oppression, and destruction of human life on the planet.17Hanley, Eleven, 280. See also: Akeel Bilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), Chapter 5.
The second distinguishing feature of a genuinely universal human identity pertains to the nature of the commonality on which it is based. Consider that, as scientific studies widely confirm, virtually all other group identities are ultimately socially constructed.18W.C. Byrd, et al, “Biological determinism and racial essentialism: The ideological double helix of racial inequality,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661, no. 1 (2015): 8-22. This is not to say, of course, that these identities are not real, whether in their objective, material consequences, or in humanity’s subjective experience and valuation of them. It is to observe, rather, that the commonalities in which they are grounded are contingent (i.e., dependent) on a range of social constructs and impermanent socio-historical phenomena, for example, on fluid beliefs about social and biological reality, on the frequently contested details of history, on socially constructed parameters of membership, and tragically, on shared experiences of oppression and injustice.19Given its biological distinctions, one might object that an identity based on gender is an exception to this observation. But a very large proportion of what constitutes gender—our ideas about what different genders are, and how members of each should behave and feel, for example—is socially constructed. As the Universal House of Justice writes in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013: “The rational soul has no gender or race, ethnicity or class…” For a related discussion, see also: Appiah, The lies that bind, Chapter 1. In this sense, then, the contingency of other collective identities is inescapable.
Strikingly, more than a hundred years ago, when the socially constructed nature of humanity’s dividing lines was far from obvious, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made these observations explicit. As he explained, “These boundaries and distinctions are human and artificial, not natural and original.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, 23. And elsewhere: “Religions, races, and nations are all divisions of man’s making only …”21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 131. Indeed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborated on the inherent contingency and impermanence of the various identities and affiliations that traditionally bind human beings together:
“In the contingent world there are many collective centers which are conducive to association and unity between the children of men. For example, patriotism is a collective center; nationalism is a collective center; identity of interests is a collective center; political alliance is a collective center; the union of ideals is a collective center, and the prosperity of the world of humanity is dependent upon the organization and promotion of the collective centers. Nevertheless, all the above institutions are, in reality, the matter and not the substance, accidental and not eternal—temporary and not everlasting. With the appearance of great revolutions and upheavals, all these collective centers are swept away.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Place, 14: Tablet to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.
Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, this article posits that, in contrast to the necessarily contingent basis of all other identities, the basis of a universal human identity need not be socially constructed or contingent. Such an identity, rather, can be rooted in the non-contingent and ultimately investigable reality of human oneness.
This second unique and distinguishing feature of an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind I will call its non-contingency. Specifically, by positing that the basis of a genuinely universal human identity is non-contingent, I take for granted first, that there is something distinctive and non-contingent that only and all human beings have in common;23As this article later discusses, the Baha’i writings offer a spiritual understanding of this human commonality, recognizing it as the human soul. and, second, that the expressions of this human commonality or “core”—expressions in the form, for example, of common yearnings, vulnerabilities, and experiences—are such that human beings, whatever their particular context, can come to recognize that a distinctive and non-contingent human commonality exists.24For the argument that follows to hold, a third premise is also needed, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. In other words, there is, or there can be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. ,25It is worth highlighting an important distinction between the non-contingent basis of a human collective identity (posited above) and the empirically contingent process whereby any social identity, including a universal one, is formed. To posit that a collective human identity can be rooted in a set of features that are not contingent on socio-historical constructs is not to say that the process through which such an identity emerges and becomes expressed—the process whereby we come to recognize and articulate our oneness and interdependence as human beings, for example, or the process that finally exposes our need for an identity based on this recognition—is not socially, materially, and historically contingent. Indeed, it is precisely the empirical conditions of our time, and the surge of historically contingent forces that shape them, which make the recognition of such a collective identity possible.
Not every possible basis of unbounded human affiliation will meet the criteria of genuine (or authentic) non-contingency. The article returns to this point in various ways below, especially when it considers what constitutes a genuinely non-contingent basis for collective identity from the Bahá’í perspective.
The sections that immediately follow, however, aim to show that when taken together, the two distinguishing features of a universal social identity posited above—that is, its non-exclusionary and potentially non-contingent basis—carry deep and far-reaching implications.
A Source of Fundamental Security
What implications follow from the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind? Consider first that these two features of a universal human identity can yield parameters of inclusion that are immovably all-inclusive—in other words, that are thoroughly stable and safe. In contrast, bounded and contingently grounded identities have parameters of membership that are inherently unstable. Because the boundaries of such identities are exclusionary (by definition, there are outsiders), and because they are contingent and fluid (they are socially constructed and therefore subject to reconstruction), their parameters of belonging are intrinsically susceptible to contestation, redefinition, exclusion, and othering. This threat of exclusion, of course, can come from without (i.e., othering of and by non-members). But significantly, it also comes from within. When parameters of inclusion are intrinsically bounded and contingent, the question of “who belongs?” can never be fully closed: today’s insiders can be cast as outsiders tomorrow. The instability of intergroup relations is thus augmented by the potential precariousness of in-group membership. The current discourse and political rhetoric surrounding many national identities helps illustrate this point. As the narrative of a national identity is recontested and retold, so too are its parameters of otherness redrawn: “Who counts as ‘real’ national and who doesn’t?” has become a strikingly unstable question in recent years, even in long-consolidated nations and democracies.
Thus, when parameters of inclusion are bounded and the basis of belonging contingent, the possibility of external threat is never fully eliminated and one’s claim to internal membership is never fully stable. Only a collective identity that is both genuinely non-exclusionary and non-contingently grounded—that is, an identity rooted in the genuine recognition of human oneness—can deliver a context of fundamental security: one belongs because one is human, full stop.26Identity and security are deeply intertwined concepts across a vast spectrum of disciplines and discourses, including political philosophy and contemporary public discourse. In philosophy, for instance, Charles Taylor’s influential discussion of identity and recognition emphasizes the guarantee of a secure feeling of permanence and continuity, while Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue that the value to one’s identity of membership in a national group is the provision of a sense of security. In another prominent example, Nussbaum worries that the removal of local boundaries might leave “a life bereft of a certain sort of warmth and security.” The link between identity and security also finds concrete expression in many examples of contemporary politics and social unrest. The political rhetoric around “walls” and “wall building” in the United States, which was overwhelmingly articulated in relation to anxieties over collective identity and belonging, is but one recent example. The close connection between social identity and a feeling of security also has deep roots in the study of psychology. One of the key functions of a social identity, according to psychologists, is to satisfy the need for security. See: C. Taylor, “The politics of recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition, ed. A. Gutmann, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-74; A. Margalit, et al, “National self-determination,” The Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 9 (1990): 439-461; M. C. Nussbaum, “Patriotism and cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, October/November (1994); E. H. Erikson, Childhood and society, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1950); A. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern Age, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
The distinctive characteristics of a universal human identity, therefore, reveal the possibility of a collective identity that is not only itself uniquely invulnerable to instability and destructiveness, but that is also uniquely equipped to relieve the insecurity and potential destructiveness of all other shared identities and affiliations. In other words, only a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind has the potential to deliver a stabilizing context of fundamental security to our particular—and otherwise unstable—group identities.
Empirical research in psychology suggests and substantiates this proposition in notable ways. Two threads of this research are briefly highlighted here. The first shows that a feeling of security (and conversely, the feeling or perception of threat) plays a critical role in constituting the context and nature of intergroup relations. Specifically, a substantial body of research finds that “felt security” relieves intergroup hostility, yielding a posture of empathy, care, and openness to out-groups,27O. Gillath, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and volunteering: Placing volunteerism in an attachment theoretical framework,” Personal Relationships 12, no. 4 (2005): 425-446; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and reactions to others’ needs: Evidence that activation of the sense of attachment security promotes empathic responses,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 1 (2001): 1205-24; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and concern for others’ welfare: evidence that activation of the sense of secure base promotes endorsement of self-transcendence values,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 25, no. 4 (2003): 299-312; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 5 (2005): 817-839. while “felt threat” increases intergroup hostility and conflict.28For example: M. B. Brewer, “The importance of being we: Human nature and intergroup relations,” American Psychologist 62, no. 8 (2007): 728-738; M. B. Brewer, et al, “An evolutionary perspective on social identity: Revisiting groups,” in Evolution and social psychology, eds. M. Schaller, et al, (Madison, CT: Psychology Press, 2006), 143-161; L. Huddy, “From group identity to political cohesion and commitment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 737-773; D. R. Kinder, “Prejudice and politics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 812-851. See also: L. S. Richman, et al, “Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model,” Psychological Review 116, no. 2 (2009): 365-383; J. M. Twenge, et al, “Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 1 (2007): 56-66; W.A.Warburton, et al, “When ostracism leads to aggression: The moderating effects of control deprivation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, no. 2 (2006): 213-220. Thus, a sense of security is conducive to more caring and empathic relations with those who hold different bounded identities.
A second thread of evidence powerfully complements the first by suggesting that identifying with the humanity of others is associated with markedly higher levels of felt security. For example, in her analysis of in-depth interviews with Nazi supporters, bystanders, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, the political psychologist Kristen Monroe found that those who conceived of themselves first and foremost as part of all humankind29K. R. Monroe, Heart of altruism: Perception of a common humanity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). K. R. Monroe, The hand of compassion: portraits of moral choice during the holocaust, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). experienced distinctively higher levels of felt security.30K. R. Monroe, Ethics in an age of terror and genocide: Identity and moral choice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). In this study, the rescuers manifested heightened levels of ontological security, while Nazi supporters fell on the other end of the felt security spectrum. It is notable that those who identified with the whole of humankind did so in a deep and profoundly felt way. They shared, in other words, a decidedly thick universal identity. Monroe’s extensive study thus also provides evidence of the empirical possibility of an affectively rich and deeply internalized universal identity. Studies employing different methods offer consistent results. Brain imaging in neuropsychology, for example, reveals that the amygdala—a part of the brain that plays a central role in the experience of fear and aggression—becomes highly active when the average subject is shown faces from different races. But when subjects are first primed to think of people as individual human beings rather than as members of groups, the amygdala does not react.31For example: M.E. Wheeler, S. T. Fiske, et al, “Controlling racial prejudice: social-cognitive goals affect amygdala and stereotype activation,” Psychol Sci. 16, no. 1 (2005): 56-63.
These two threads of empirical research thus suggest that identifying with the oneness of humankind is associated with a greater sense of security, and that a sense of security relieves intergroup hostility and yields a posture of empathy, care, altruism, and openness toward out-groups.
Taken together, these empirical findings begin to substantiate the implications drawn logically from the inclusiveness and non-contingency of a universal source of belonging. An identity based on the essential oneness of humankind detaches bounded identities from the threat of rejection, humiliation, and domination that has forever shadowed them, and from notions of superiority and inferiority that have stubbornly fueled these threats. In other words, by transforming the overarching frame in which difference is situated and perceived—by resituating our particular identities within parameters of inclusion that are thoroughly safe, immovable, and all-inclusive—a universal identity has the potential to fundamentally relieve the seemingly inherent instabilities of our particular attachments, and to resolve the chronic tension or duality that we observed at the outset. An all-encompassing identity can thus deliver the context of genuine and enduring security that has long eluded our bounded social identities.32To be clear, nothing in this argument should be taken to suggest that bounded cultures and identities must remain static or unchanging. To the contrary, a context of deep, all-pervasive security allows our particular cultures and identities to freely change and evolve without causing the feelings of insecurity and threat that often accompany such change. See also footnotes 14 and 48.
Beyond Security: Liberating the Particular
The preceding section developed the case that an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind provides a context of fundamental security, stabilizing the tensions that have long shadowed our bounded identities. The implications of a genuinely universal collective identity, however, go beyond just relieving particular identities of their destructive and destabilizing potential. What a context of deep, all-pervasive security delivers is not merely a stable equilibrium of peaceful coexistence, but rather, optimal conditions for the vibrancy and flourishing of particular identities, and of human diversity more broadly.
The idea here might be put this way: when the cost and encumbrance of insecurity and its associated protective measures are removed, on the one hand, and when an open and empathic posture toward difference becomes pervasive, on the other, then uninhibited, constructive, and creative expressions of the particular from all sides become much more probable and robust. In a context of fundamental security, goals of survival and collective self-protection can give way to more generative and constructive goals. In other words, through the felt security and certainty of belonging that an identity rooted in human oneness provides, other identities find not only protection—from their own instability and from the threat of other groups—but also liberation or release from the constraining weight that a context of latent threat has imposed on the expression of their potential. Thus, the deeply internalized consciousness of the oneness of humanity frees our bounded identities both from the threats of instability, hostility, and oppression that have stubbornly shadowed them, and from the countless safeguards and constraints that have been devised to keep these instabilities in check. Far from stifling the diversity of humankind, a reimagined universal human identity can furnish a powerful lubricant for the free expression of diversity on newly constituted terms.
Notably, the relationship between freedom and the recognition of human oneness is emphasized and elaborated in various ways throughout the Bahá’í writings. In one passage, for example, Bahá’u’lláh writes, “If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty.…”33Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 162. In another tablet, Bahá’u’lláh explains more explicitly that “true liberty” will be achieved when identification with and love for the whole of humankind is realized in people’s consciousness.34Bahá’u’lláh, Amr va Khalq Volume 3, 472. Translations from the Persian are by the author and provisional. See also: Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Lanham, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2000), 327-328. It is noteworthy that, in that passage, Bahá’u’lláh also characterizes the achievement of such an identity as “the ornament of utmost tranquility,” further associating universal human identity with a sense of fundamental security and freedom.
What comes into focus, then, is a radical and somewhat counterintuitive vision of human oneness that directly addresses the tension between the universal and the particular. The Baha’i writings suggest that it is by liberating the particular through the universal—by releasing, in other words, the particular from the insecurities, instabilities, and oppressive relationships that have constrained it—that a fundamental and enduring resolution emerges.35For a discussion of how this resolution compares to those that have been devised by some contemporary political theorists, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). Paradoxically, it is by leaning fully into a genuine and emotionally rich universalism that the particular thrives, flourishes, and fulfills its potential. Thus, and as the opening passage from the Universal House of Justice indicates, it is through the deeply felt recognition of our fundamental oneness that the infinite expressions of human diversity thrive and find their highest fulfillment.36Pursuing the logic of this argument further also illuminates the reciprocal and mutually dependent relationship between unity and diversity, and the assertion of the Universal House of Justice that “Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguish ing it from uniformity.” Put briefly, a context of oneness not only facilitates the expression of the particular and the fulfilment of its distinctive potential, but the liberated expression of the particular, in turn, ensures that the emergent form of oneness is not uniformity, but rather, unity—that is, the close integration of diverse components which have transcended the narrow purpose of ensuring their own existence and found their highest fulfillment in relation to the whole.
Critiques of Universalism and the Distinctiveness of the Bahá’í View
The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in preceding sections present a significant departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse, particularly in the contemporary discourses of the West. One of the most powerful and pervasive critiques of universalism—and of a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind, in particular—is that it poses a threat to diversity. Skeptics worry that, along a variety of dimensions (e.g., identity, language, culture, geography, institutions, etc.), the ideal of human oneness carries an inherent risk of uniformity. This homogeneity, they further worry, tends to project dominant cultures and identities, and is often propagated through (neo-)imperialistic processes.37O. Dahbour, Self-Determination without nationalism: A theory of postnational sovereignty, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); A. Kolers, Land, conflict, and justice: A political theory of territory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Farah Godrej, Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice, Discipline, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, envision a radically different possibility. The concept of oneness that emerges from these writings is not uniformity, but rather, a notion of unity that “contains the essential concept of diversity.” This conception of oneness is also strikingly embodied in the practice of the Bahá’í community. Across the globe, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively expressed in worldwide community-building efforts that are explicitly “outward looking”38Universal House of Justice, letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, 30 December 2021.: they are, by definition, open to the full diversity of human beings, including those with other or no religious beliefs.
Another prominent critique of universalism reflects the notion that ideas rooted in our common humanity are overly abstract and disconnected from the concrete texture of everyday experience. While universalist visions might be relevant to questions of directly global or transnational concern (e.g., global governance, “global” poverty, etc.), their relevance to the relationships, neighborhoods, and communities to which people immediately belong is unclear or remote. This is especially true, the argument goes, where collective identity is concerned. In contrast to the intimacy and warmth offered by our traditional group identities, a universal human identity entails a rational commitment to the cold and distant abstraction of human oneness. From this perspective, an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is too far removed from the texture of everyday life and experience to deliver the color, warmth, meaning, and locality that our other identities provide. A variation on this critique is the now-popularized charge of elitism: if a global, universal, or “cosmopolitan” identity works for anyone, we are told (and can vividly imagine), it works for a small, out-of-touch tribe of frequent-flying elites.39C. Calhoun, “‘Belonging’ in the cosmopolitan imaginary,” Ethnicities 3, no. 4 (2003): 531-568; M. Lerner, “Empires of reason,” Boston Review 19, no. 5 (1994); Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.”
The Bahá’í vision of oneness and identity also diverges markedly from this view. As the preceding sections have tried to show an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind transforms the overarching context in which all identities are expressed, reorienting identities and relationships at all levels of society. From the Bahá’í perspective, then, the domain of universalism does not lie exclusively beyond borders, nor is it some distant transnational space inaccessible to the masses. Its domain, rather, is everywhere: it is concrete, immediate, and ubiquitous, encompassing all the textured communities and identities human beings value, whether they hold international passports or not. In this view, the oneness of humankind finds expression as much in the particular, and as much within the bounds of local and national communities, as it does beyond them. Again, this conception of oneness is not only reflected in the writings of the Faith, but also, strikingly, in the practice and experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community across countless cultural settings. In the Bahá’í experience, a universal identity is both directly nourished by and expressed in a range of grassroots community-building efforts that are decidedly local in nature.40For an exploration of Bahá’í community-building efforts, please see the article “Community and Collective Action,” available in the Library.
A directly related and overlapping feature of the Bahá’í conception of human oneness—and of an identity rooted in the oneness of humanity, in particular—is the radical, thoroughgoing, and unprecedented nature of the transformation it entails. Unlike some notable conceptions of universalism, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind does not simply call for the “universalization” of existing identities, norms, and institutions.41The notable conceptions of universalism referred to here are primarily those that emerge from the school of thought known as “cosmopolitanism” in contemporary Western political theory. For a thorough comparison of contemporary cosmopolitan theory to a view derived from the Bahá’í writings , see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). For examples of contemporary Western cosmopolitan thought, see: C. R. Beitz, Political theory and international relations, second edition, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); T. W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); D. Archibugi, The global commonwealth of citizens: Toward cosmopolitan democracy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); D. Held, Democracy and the global order: From the modern state to cosmopolitan governance, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995). It does not, for instance, entail the extension of existing national systems of governance and democracy to the entire globe; nor does it simply call for the expansion of existing schemes of domestic redistribution, or the replication of national collective identities in the global plane. Rather, the Bahá’í conception of the oneness of humanity represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates every level of society, fundamentally reorienting all identities and relationships, and transforming all structures of society. As the Universal House of Justice writes, “the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.”42Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Similarly, this principle “has widespread implications which affect and remold all dimensions of human activity.”43Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual, 24 January 1994.
In other words, far from merely reflecting a linear and incremental expansion of scope from the national to global sphere, the deeply felt recognition of humanity’s oneness represents a fundamentally different and qualitatively unprecedented step in the evolution of humankind. In reference to the revolutionary changes that led to the unification of nations, for example, Shoghi Effendi writes, “Great and far-reaching as have been those changes in the past, they cannot appear, when viewed in their proper perspective, except as subsidiary adjustments preluding that transformation of unparalleled majesty … which humanity is in this age bound to undergo.”44Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 45. Elsewhere, he explains that the principle of the oneness of humankind implies “a change such that the world has not yet experienced,” “a new gospel, fundamentally different from … what the world has already conceived.”45Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 42-43.
The Risk of False Universalisms
Of course, any proponent of the oneness of humankind must heed a critical warning: humanity shares a long and continuing history of oppressive ideas about the “human.”46For example, see: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Walter D. Mignolo, “Who Speaks for the ‘Human’ in Human Rights?” Hispanic Issues On Line, Fall (2009): 7-24; Rinaldo Walcott, “Problem of The Human, or the Void of Relationality,” The Long Emancipation: Moving toward Black Freedom, (New York: Duke University Press, 2021), 55-58. Indeed, theorists of various kinds legitimately worry that casting our humanity in essentialist terms (i.e., taking for granted that our humanness is constituted by certain universal features, as the premise of non-contingency suggests) risks elevating a particular conception of the human over others, potentially marginalizing non-dominant experiences and opening the door to false, oppressive, and exclusionary ideas.
Adequately addressing these important concerns lies beyond the limited frame of this article. Here, I acknowledge the significance of these concerns and briefly highlight two points that might be developed in relation to them. First, recognizing that a non-contingent basis for a universal human identity exists—a recognition, it should be noted, that countless human beings readily and intuitively evince—does not require an immediate commitment to any particular, fixed, or rigid conception of our shared humanity. Of course, on a biological level, the truth that human beings constitute a single species is a basic fact that few people today deny, and which can serve as a starting point for the recognition of our shared humanity. But to arrive at a fuller and deeper common understanding of human oneness—one that can sustain a richly-conceived collective identity—a process of genuinely open, inclusive, and dynamic inquiry is required. By explicitly positing that the content or definition of a universal human identity must (minimally) include the recognition of its basis as non-exclusionary and non-contingent, we guard against false accounts of the human that violate these parameters—accounts, in other words, that exclude some human beings, or that render their humanity contingent and therefore questionable.47The validity of this point depends on the third premise described in footnote 23, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. Or put differently, there is, or could be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. This particular formulation of a collective human identity thus creates a safe and stable set of parameters within which genuine dialogue and inquiry into the content and expression of the human can take place.48It also creates a set of parameters within which particular identities and their various aspects can be examined. Not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be protected and empowered. The criteria of non-exclusion and non-contingency helps identify identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness, and that must therefore be abandoned or recast.
A related point is suggested in the Bahá’í writings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaims, “[T]ruth or reality must be investigated; for reality is one, and by investigating it, all will find love and unity.”49Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 123. In another talk, He explains:
“The first teaching [of Bahá’u’lláh] is that man should investigate reality, for reality is contrary to dogmatic interpretations and imitations of ancestral forms of belief to which all nations and peoples adhere so tenaciously … Reality is one; and when found, it will unify all mankind … Reality is the oneness or solidarity of mankind … The second teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the principle of the oneness of the world of humanity.”50Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 372.
Clearly, these passages assert the truth of the principle of the oneness of humankind. But by closely pairing that principle with the precept that human beings should actively investigate reality, the truth of human oneness is also rendered a testable hypothesis. Indeed, both the reality of human oneness, and ideas about the various forms and expressions it might take, are investigable propositions. The posture of free and independent investigation enjoined by the Bahá’í writings—that is, the principle that truth must be investigated free from the force of prevailing traditions, habits, and prejudices—both demands a critical interrogation of the (often oppressive) claims, structures, and relationships that bear the false imprint of universalism, and directly negates any assumption that universalism requires the imposition of a particular viewpoint or way of thought. In the Bahá’í view, a genuine recognition of the oneness of humankind can not only survive the free, open, and critical investigation of reality, but in fact, requires it. With the potential pitfalls of essentialism firmly in mind, but recognizing the transformative power that a genuine universalism could hold, the reality of human oneness might be regarded as a hypothesis that deserves the open, rigorous, and investigative posture that the Bahá’í teachings invite.51Relatedly, yet another critique of universalism claims that it threatens the diversity of thought that emerges from free and independent thinking. This critique might go as follows: the creation of national identities required, at best, a moderate manipulation of thought (through the invention and promotion of national mythologies, for example), and at worst, extreme suppressions of free and critical thinking (as in the case of totalitarian forms of nationalism). How much more of this manipulation and suppression would be needed, this critique asks, to bind the whole of humanity, with all its differences, in a collective identity? When we begin, however, from the premise that, unlike nationality, a universal identity need not be socially constructed, a different light is shed on the objection that the consciousness of human oneness depends on the curtailment of free and independent investigation. If one accepts, even as a hypothesis, that human oneness has a non-contingent basis, it follows that a genuinely free and critical investigation of reality—a commitment to truth and truth-seeking—could strengthen the possibility of a deeply internalized universal human identity, not undermine it. See also Nader Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being: Beyond Religious Traditionalism and Materialist Modernity,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 21, no. 1-4 (2011), 1-28.
A Spiritual Conception of Human Oneness and the Ongoing Learning of the Bahá’í Community
Drawing insights from the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that the solution to our collective crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of the oneness of humankind. But as the preceding section suggests, important questions remain: What might constitute the content—that is, the non-contingent basis—of a universal human collective identity? Can such an identity take shape and find expression across the vast spectrum of human diversity? And if so, how?
In this connection, the experience of the Bahá’í community and its grassroots community-building efforts present a potentially fruitful case for study. Bahá’í communities, the Universal House of Justice explains, define themselves “above all … by their commitment to the oneness of humanity.”52Universal House of Justice, letter to all who have come to honour the Herald of a new DawnOctober 2019. Significantly, for the Bahá’í community, this recognition of human oneness is a fundamental and defining feature of identity. It is a meaningful and deeply internalized commitment, entailing thick, emotionally rich bonds of genuine solidarity and love.53For a further discussion of why thick bonds of human identity might be highly hospitable to diversity, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Toward a New Universalism,” The Hedgehog Review Online, December 2020. Bahá’ís consciously strive to manifest a love that extends “without restriction to every human being”54Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the United States, 22 July 2020. and to achieve “a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives …”55One Common Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2005), 44.
As alluded to earlier, the radical vision of human oneness that motivates this identity also shapes the practice and experience of the Bahá’í community in important and potentially illuminating ways. First, the Bahá’í expression of unity contains the essential concept of diversity. Second and relatedly, the Bahá’í concept of oneness finds powerful expression in the local and the particular: it assumes a deep confluence between a universal human identity, on the one hand, and a deeply felt sense of local community and belonging, on the other. As such, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively and systematically expressed in local community-building processes open to the full spectrum of human diversity56In a letter dated 1 November 2022, the Universal House of Justice urges Bahá’ís to demonstrate “that vital Bahá’í attitude of being truly outward looking, sincerely open to all, and resolutely inclusive.” and extending to every corner of the planet. Around the globe, Bahá’ís—and all who wish to join them—are consciously learning how an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind can be cultivated and expressed across a range of breathtakingly diverse communities, identities, and experiences. In light of the two core concerns raised by critics of universalism—namely, that the ideal of human oneness stifles diversity and is detached from the texture and locality of everyday life—the evolving experience of the Bahá’í community presents fertile ground for learning. Additionally, the experience of the Bahá’í community addresses the further critique that universalist projects, in particular those pertaining to social identity, are utopian and unrealizable. The breadth, depth, and wide-reaching resonance of Bahá’í endeavors should at least prompt a reconsideration of this frequently assumed limit of collective human possibility.
Another essential characteristic of the Bahá’í principle of human oneness relates more directly to the basis of a universal human identity and the question of its non-contingency. From the Bahá’í perspective, what renders a universal collective identity truly stabilizing and non-contingent—in other words, what makes it uniquely invulnerable to the tensions, instabilities, and contradictions that characterize other sources of identity—is a spiritual understanding of the human oneness on which it is based. According to the Bahá’í writings, the fundamentally spiritual reality of human beings—the human soul—is not characterized by the contingent traits that define other, bounded social identities. As the Universal House of Justice explains, “An individual’s true self is to be found in the powers of the soul, which has the capacity to know God and to reflect His attributes. The soul has no gender, no ethnicity, no race. God sees no differences among human beings except in relation to the conscious effort of each individual to purify his or her soul and to express its full powers … This truth is directly related to another—that humanity is one family.”57Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022. Also illuminating in this connection is the equation of the spiritual and with true freedom in the Bahá’í writings. Even as the spiritual is equated with the universal, the realization of true liberty is equated both with the spiritual (i.e., freedom from the material world of nature) and with genuine universalism, further reinforcing this article’s earlier discussion of liberty. On this and related points, see Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being.”
Recall the core argument that, in contrast to all other forms of love and association, the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of an identity rooted in human oneness yields a collective identity that is uniquely stable and stabilizing. In more than one passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms this idea directly, and explicitly ties the non-contingency of universal love and identity to a spiritual source. For example:
“… fraternity, love and kindness based upon family, nativity, race or an attitude of altruism are neither sufficient nor permanent since all of them are limited, restricted and liable to change and disruption. For in the family there is discord and alienation; among sons of the same fatherland strife and internecine warfare are witnessed; between those of a given race, hostility and hatred are frequent; and even among the altruists varying aspects of opinion and lack of unselfish devotion give little promise of permanent and indestructible unity among mankind … the foundation of real brotherhood, the cause of loving co-operation and reciprocity and the source of real kindness and unselfish devotion is none other than the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without this influence and animus it is impossible. We may be able to realize some degrees of fraternity through other motives but these are limited associations and subject to change. When human brotherhood is founded upon the Holy Spirit, it is eternal, changeless, unlimited.”58Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 385-386.
Elsewhere, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá characterizes love for the whole of humanity as the one expression of love that is uniquely “perfect” (i.e., free from limits and instabilities) and again, ties this characteristic to the spiritual and the divine. He explains:
Love is limitless, boundless, infinite! Material things are limited, circumscribed, finite. You cannot adequately express infinite love by limited means.
The perfect love needs an unselfish instrument, absolutely freed from fetters of every kind. The love of family is limited; the tie of blood relationship is not the strongest bond. Frequently members of the same family disagree, and even hate each other.
Patriotic love is finite; the love of one’s country causing hatred of all others, is not perfect love!
Compatriots also are not free from quarrels amongst themselves.
The love of race is limited; there is some union here, but that is insufficient. Love must be free from boundaries!
To love our own race may mean hatred of all others, and even people of the same race often dislike each other.
Political love also is much bound up with hatred of one party for another; this love is very limited and uncertain.
The love of community of interest in service is likewise fluctuating; frequently competitions arise, which lead to jealousy, and at length hatred replaces love…
All these ties of love are imperfect. It is clear that limited material ties are insufficient to adequately express the universal love. The great unselfish love for humanity is bounded by none of these imperfect, semi-selfish bonds; this is the one perfect love, possible to all mankind, and can only be achieved by the power of the Divine Spirit. No worldly power can accomplish the universal love.59Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 36-37.
Spiritual forces and commitments are not only conducive to selfless association and universal love; for many human beings, they are also prime sources of meaning, purpose, and purposeful action. Casting a spiritual light on identity thus reveals a potent connection between the crisis of identity with which this article is concerned, and another pressing crisis confronting humanity, namely, our collective crisis of agency and meaning. Indeed, even as we collectively struggle to find a secure sense of identity and belonging, the yearning for a sense of meaningful agency—that is, the yearning to meaningfully shape our lives, to give purposeful expression to our potential, and to contribute constructively to the communities we inhabit—is also widely frustrated. The experience of the Bahá’í community and the conception of identity on which it is based suggest that the solution to these two crises ultimately converge. A spiritual conception of identity not only attaches an absolute sense of belonging to the condition of being human; it also provides a powerful source of purpose and agency, and a basis for meaningful, transformative action. In the Bahá’í experience, these two expressions of identity—being and doing—are deeply intertwined and often indistinguishable.
The aim of this brief section has not been to demonstrate or adequately develop these ideas. Rather, it has been to highlight how the efforts of the Bahá’í community across vastly different cultural settings might provide illuminating insights into the power and possibility of a universal collective identity and, in particular, into the potential of an explicitly spiritual conception of human oneness.
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“Humanity,” the Universal House of Justice observes, “is gripped by a crisis of identity…” The Bahá’í writings proclaim that the solution to this crisis lies in a radically reconceptualized vision of human identity and oneness. Specifically, they suggest that a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind is uniquely equipped to resolve both the tensions that have destabilized our traditional group identities, and the widely assumed tension between humanity’s oneness and its diversity. Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that only a universal human identity can ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular identities, communities, and affiliations. In this view, an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates all levels of society, that reorients all identities and relationships, and that fundamentally protects and liberates our bounded affiliations from their otherwise inherent instabilities and contradictions. Above all, this article has tried to show that as humanity’s crisis of identity persists and intensifies, the Bahá’í vision of human oneness, and its evolving expression in the community-building efforts of the worldwide Bahá’í community, are worthy of close attention.
When calamity strikes, questions concerning the distribution of material resources often follow. The Great Depression gave birth to the New Deal, a series of sweeping government programs and reforms in the United States aimed at immediate economic relief for the “forgotten man.”1Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the “forgotten man” on the eve of his announcing the New Deal. Accessed online from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy (https://bit.ly/3f387Xy) on 9 June 2020. The world wars saw the expansion and consolidation of the modern welfare state via a wave of nationalizations and other measures designed to provide a “cradle-to-grave” safety net in areas like health, education, housing, and retirement benefits. For today’s generation, both the Great Recession of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 exposed great social and economic inequalities and reinvigorated debate as to the causes and consequences of the unequal distribution of economic resources and opportunities. Both crises spurred governments to levels of unprecedented social spending, hundreds of billions to prevent the failure of banks in 2008/9 and hundreds more billions—even trillions—to prevent the grave consequences of mass unemployment in 2020. Yet, notwithstanding renewed interest in the topic and bold government action, and despite the fact that humanity is currently enjoying unprecedented levels of material prosperity, the distribution of material resources—of wealth and income in particular—has grown ever more unequal. In fact, according to one social historian, inequality has, since the Stone Age, always been rising, and only four forces—the “Four Horsemen of Leveling”—have ever managed to lower it: pandemics, mass warfare, revolution, and state collapse. 2Scheidel, Walter, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018). Today, 20 percent of the global income is owned by the richest 1 percent of the world’s population whereas the poorest 50 percent own just 9 percent.3Based on administrative and other data from the World Inequality Database accessed at wid.world The choice thus appears to be either to come to terms with ever rising levels of inequality or hope for disaster. Must it really be so?
The Bahá’í teachings explain that the inordinate disparity between rich and poor is a “source of acute suffering” which “keeps the world in a state of instability.”4Universal House of Justice, letter of October 1985 to the peoples of the world, titled “The Promise of World Peace”. Available at www.bahai.org/r/267204466 Furthermore, the negative consequences of extreme inequality have been documented by scholars of various disciplines. They include social and political instability5Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti, “Income Distribution, Political Instability and Investment,” European Economic Review 40, no.6 (1996):1203-1228. as well as threats to environmental sustainability.6See, for example, the annual reports of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. At the individual level, inequality can lead to shorter, unhealthier, and unhappier lives, including increases in teenage pregnancy, violence, and obesity.7Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
Of course, it is one thing to agree that inequality—at least in its extreme forms—is bad. For a religious person, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of moralizing, on the basis of lofty spiritual principle, perceived or actual inequalities. The far more difficult task is to articulate a coherent conception of what sort of equality is good. This is a challenging question, one with a long philosophical tradition that focuses on such things as equality of opportunity, equality of outcomes, fair versus unfair inequality, and more. The purpose of this article is to stimulate reflection on these matters by setting out a number of principles contained in the Bahá’í teachings related to distributional issues and by connecting these principles to today’s economic conditions. The Bahá’í concept of social change envisions the transformation of human society to be the aggregate of two other interlocking transformations: that of the individual and that in the structures of society. The article, therefore, discusses principles intended to stimulate reflection on both the collective and individual levels and highlights, where possible, potential mechanisms—public policy and political participation, to name just two examples—through which these principles might find practical expression.
In attempting to correlate Bahá’í principles to current economic conditions, this article presents a number of facts concerning the global distribution of income, facts drawn from measures collected by leading academic economists. The interested reader is invited to consult the technical appendix for a more thorough description of what these data measure and the caveats associated with them.
How much is too much?
According to the Bahá’í teachings, the solution to many of the economic problems that afflict humanity appears rather simple: moderation. That is, while some degree of inequality is natural, the Bahá’í teachings unequivocally call for the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of the “equal opportunity of the means of existence” whereby “a rich man is able to live in his palace surrounded by luxury and the greatest comfort” just as a “poor man be able to have the necessaries of life.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/095377521 The “readjustment in the economic conditions of mankind” that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá envisions will be such that
in the future there will not be the abnormally rich nor the abject poor. The rich will enjoy the privilege of this new economic condition as well as the poor, for owing to certain provisions and restrictions they will not be able to accumulate so much as to be burdened by its management, while the poor will be relieved from the stress of want and misery.14‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/841208804
Though seemingly simple, striking the right balance in wealth distribution has proven immensely difficult. Table 1 provides one example of wealth distribution in the richest country of the world, the United States. The table shows how much wealth a family requires to belong to different percentiles of the wealth distribution. The top 1 percent of earners in America consists of just over 1.5 million families. To belong to this group, a family requires $3.9 million; the average wealth of all families in this group stands at $13.8 million. To be counted among the 16,070 families in the top 0.01 percent of the distribution requires a staggering $111 million of wealth. In contrast, there are nearly 145 million families in the bottom 90 percent of the distribution. These families each have, on average, $84,000 in wealth.15Though related, wealth and income are not the same. Wealth typically is more concentrated than income. As the authors of the paper from which the data was taken state: “The top 0.1% wealth share is about as large as the top 1% income share in 2012: by that metric, wealth is ten times more concentrated than income.” Saez, Emmanuel and Zucman, Gabriel. 2016. Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(2), pp.519-578.
To demonize wealth is not the point. Quite the contrary. The Bahá’í teachings not only prohibit asceticism but regard wealth as “praiseworthy in the highest degree” provided it is (a) acquired through honest means and (b) used to advance philanthropic purposes.16‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/753844522 Although the Teachings warn against luxury and excess, Bahá’u’lláh enjoins us to use our wealth as a means to achieve worthy ends. “The best of men,” He writes, “are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds.”17Bahá’u’lláh. The Hidden Words from the Persian No. 82. Available at www.bahai.org/r/002944255 Aside from the prohibition against asceticism, Bahá’ís are also discouraged from adopting austere lifestyles. In response to a letter received on the subject, Bahá’u’lláh writes the following:
Thou hast written that they have pledged themselves to observe maximum austerity in their lives with a view to forwarding the remainder of their income to His exalted presence. This matter was mentioned at His holy court. He said: Let them act with moderation and not impose hardship upon themselves. We would like them both to enjoy a life that is well-pleasing.18Bahá’u’lláh quoted in the compilation entitled Huqúqulláh — The Right of God Selection No. 19. Available at https://bit.ly/3fpYphM
Addressing inequality from the top and bottom
The issue, instead, appears to be one of economic justice based on our interconnectedness. One wonders, for example, to what extent extreme wealth causes, and indeed is a consequence of, extreme poverty and whether policies that allow for the hyper-concentration of wealth simultaneously make it easier for the disadvantaged to fall into destitution. “The welfare of any segment of humanity,” the Universal House of Justice writes, “is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbors.”19Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/934375828 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, moreover, explains that “[w]ealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/753844522
Given the interconnected nature of the human family, efforts to realize a more just distribution of economic resources must be addressed from both the top—by, for example, regulating and limiting the hyper-concentrated accumulation of wealth through taxation and other measures21In The Promulgation of Universal Peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks about the elimination of trusts, for example. Available at Available at www.bahai.org/r/196674493 —and the bottom—via transfers and strong social spending. Calls to unleash economic growth, on the assumption that it automatically translates into an equitable distribution of resources, are unfounded. This is made evident in Figure 2 which plots trends in the share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent of earners in the global income distribution.
The above figure demonstrates two facts: differences in (a) levels and (b) trends between top and bottom earners. With respect to levels, those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution earn, on average, about 10 percentage points more of national income than those in the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution (19 percent for the top 1 percent compared to 9 percent for the bottom 50 percent). In addition, top earners are trending at three times the rate. Between 1980 and 2016, those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution increased their share of national income by 4.4 percentage points, from 16 percent to 20.4 percent. For those in the bottom 50 percent, their share of national income increased by just 1.5 percentage points over the same time period. More than anything, the figure casts significant doubt on the assertion—often used as justification for tax cuts for the wealthy—that rises in income at the very top provide wealth, opportunity, and incentives for those at the bottom. While a rising tide may lift all boats, structuring the economy so as to allow wealth to funnel upwards does not. In brief, economic justice requires that the rules that regulate the economy are fair and not tilted to the benefit of a particular segment of society to reinforce its enrichment.
Collective Choice: The Power of Public Policy
‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserts that “there is need of an equalization and apportionment by which all may possess the comforts and privileges of life is evident.” “The remedy,” He explains, “must be legislative readjustment of conditions.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904155405
The power of public policy to shape societies cannot be overstated. Indeed, the mechanism through which society expresses its values as regards to social order is public policy. Economies, however, unlike the natural universe, are not prone to description through a set of universal, immutable laws. They are social constructs. Who participates in them and what values these participants hold matter. This is made evident by three examples.
First, Figure 3 shows the same trends as in Figure 2 but disaggregated to two regions/countries: the United States and Western Europe. The trends are remarkable, as is the contrast between them. In Western Europe, those in the bottom 50 percent of the distribution have claimed, on average, 12 percentage points more of national income than those in the top 1 percent, a complete reversal of the global averages. What is more is that the trends have been relatively stable in the 35 years leading to 2016. In the United States, by contrast, the two series are trending at high rates and in the exact opposite direction. Whereas those in the top 1 percent have seen their share of national income increase from 10 to 20 percent from 1980 to 2016, those in the bottom 50 percent have seen theirs decline from 20 to 13 percent in the same time period. Given that Western Europe and the United States enjoy relatively similar levels of material prosperity, political stability, exposure to globalization, and technological advancement, the trends highlight the role that national policies, institutions, and voter preferences play in shaping the distribution of income.
Second, Figure A.1 in the Appendix shows the evolution of the top 10 percent in a sample of six countries around the world between 1980 and 2016. As shown, there is a steady increase in all countries, though the increases occur at different rates. In India, for example, those in the top 10 percent of the income distribution claimed 24 percentage points more of national income in 2016 (55 percent) as compared to 1980 (31 percent). In the USA and Canada, by contrast, the rise for those in the top 10 percent over the same time period was 13 percentage points; in Europe, the increase was just 4.4 percentage points. The different rates at which top earners accumulate across different countries again underscores the importance of national policies and institutions in shaping the distribution of income. Rising inequality, in other words, is not just an inevitable outcome of impersonal market forces at work.
Finally, Figure 4 provides another example of the strong impact public policy plays in shaping economic outcomes. It plots the changes, in percentage points, in the share of pre-tax national income accruing to the top 1 percent against the change (in percentage points) in the top marginal tax rate between 1960 and 2009 in a sample of 18 OECD countries. As shown, the countries with the steepest declines in top marginal tax rates have also experienced the steepest increases in the share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent. What is more, there “is no statistically significant relationship between the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the rate of productivity growth in the developed countries since 1980.”23Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. pp. 510 In other words, lowering the tax rate of the wealthiest segments of society has had a strong, positive effect on their earnings without stimulating growth and productivity in the wider economy.
Like the other examples in this section, Figure 4 highlights how public policy can shape the economy to achieve a certain social outcome. Different policies will invariably lead to different outcomes. The hyper-concentration of wealth is thus a choice, not an inevitability. “There is no justification,” the House of Justice explains, “for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.”24Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/934375828 Put simply, the moral dimension of the generation, distribution and utilization of material resources implies that policy be designed to serve the interests of all people. Finding novel ways to justify policies that serve the economic interests of the few at the expense of the many is a tendency of humanity’s collective childhood, not its coming of age.
Collective Choice: The Power of Participation
Ensuring that public policy reflects the interests of all people requires participation. “A key characteristic of democracy,” writes Robert Dahl, a prominent political theorist, “is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.”25Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971). One of the ways that governments respond to the preferences of its citizens is by paying attention to who votes. In recent decades, however, the share of people turning out to vote has decreased in many countries. And in many cases, the decline in voting is marked along class lines. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that those who vote are typically better educated, wealthier, and more informed politically than those who abstain, and these very characteristics have been shown to correlate strongly with certain preferences for redistribution, or the lack of it.26See, for example, Valentino Larcinese, “Voting over Redistribution and the Size of the Welfare State: The Role of Turnout,” Political Studies 55 (2007):568-585; Martin Gilens, “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” Public Opinion Quarterly 69, no. 5(2005): 778-796; Benjamen I. Page et al, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 1(2013): 51-73.
Falling rates of voter turnout, therefore, imply that the preferences of wealthy individuals are over-represented in relation to those of the population in general, which places less pressure on public policy for redistribution. In line with this thinking, academic scholarship has shown a rather robust relationship between the rate of voter turnout and the size of government spending on redistributive policies. These studies have found that higher turnout across countries leads, among other things, to higher top marginal tax rates,27Navid Sabet, “Turning Out for Redistribution: The Effect of Voter Turnout on Top Marginal Tax Rates,” Munich Discussion Paper no. 2016-13 (University of Munich, Department of Economics, 2016). Accessed 22 August 2020: https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/72625/ welfare expenditure and the political leaning of the party in power,28Alexander M. Hicks and Duane H. Swank, “Politics, Institutions, and Welfare Spending in Industrialised Democracies, 1960-1982,” American Political Science Review 86, no. 3 (1992): 658–674. and social spending in non-welfare categories such as education and health.29Peter H. Lindert, “What Limits Social Spending?” Explorations in Economic History 33 (1996):1–34. Within countries, various episodes of voter enfranchisement have been studied to show that governments systematically target resources to serve the economic interests of the newly enfranchised group. This appears to be true of African Americans,30Elizabeth U. Cascio and Ebonya L. Washington, “Valuing the Vote: The Redistribution of Voting Rights and State Funds Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 129, no.1(2914):379-433. women,31Grant Miller, “Women’s Suffrage, Political Responsiveness, and Child Survival in American History,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no.3 (2008):1287–1327. lesser educated citizens,32Thomas Fujiwara, “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil,” Econometrica 83, no. 2 (2015): 423–464. and undocumented migrants.33Navid Sabet and Christoph Winter, 2019. “Legal Status and Local Spending: The Distributional Consequences of the 1986 IRCA,” CESifo Working Paper Series No. 7611, CESifo. Accessed 22 August 2020: https://www.cesifo.org/DocDL/cesifo1_wp7611_0.pdf
Put plainly, if those with lower incomes participate less in political processes, then public economic policy is likely to be less responsive to their preferences. Measures to broaden participation in political processes can help ensure that markets are structured to serve the interests of all people. In this respect, it is interesting to note that less than 100 years ago, many industrialized nations had tax rates well over 70 percent. Germany, for example, experienced top marginal tax rates as high as 75 percent in the early 1950s and a 90 percent rate in the late 1940s. 34Piketty, Capital, 2014 The United Kingdom set top income tax rates as high as 98 percent in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, while the United States levied a 91 percent tax on top incomes in the 1950s and 1960s and then relaxed the rate to 70 percent or more throughout the 1970s.35Ibid Figure A.2 in the Appendix shows trends in voter turnout and top marginal tax rates in the countries that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As shown, higher turnout in the 70s corresponded with much higher top marginal tax rates. Since that time, both series have trended significantly downward.
Of course, the foregoing discussion highlights the important role of political participation—electoral participation in particular—in shaping economic outcomes. It goes without saying that this is but one form of participation that we may be interested in. Moreover, the empirical evidence cited demonstrates the correlation between rates of electoral participation and various economic outcomes. In addition to strengthening participation in this way, raising the quality of participation is another issue to consider. Perhaps one of the strongest measures to take in this regard is improving education and access to knowledge. In this respect, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that “[p]ublic opinion must be directed toward whatever is worthy of this day”. Accordingly, He explains: “It is therefore urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society” and these thoughts “should be published and spread throughout the nation, so that at least the leaders among the people should become, to some degree, awakened, and arise to exert themselves along those lines which will lead to their abiding honor”. “The publication of high thoughts” He moreover explains “is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world.”36‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/226587004
To the extent that ends ought to be consistent with means, achieving moderate social and economic outcomes must be achieved through moderate policy. In this respect, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls on the governments of the world to unite and form an assembly to deliberate on the distribution of resources and to enact regulations in such a way that “neither the capitalists suffer from enormous losses nor the laborers become needy. In the utmost moderation they should make the law.”37‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/052723345
It is preferable, then, that some measure of moderation be achieved, and by moderation is meant the enactment of such laws and regulations as would prevent the unwarranted concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and satisfy the essential needs of the many. For instance, the factory owners reap a fortune every day, but the wage the poor workers are paid cannot even meet their daily needs: This is most unfair, and assuredly no just man can accept it. Therefore, laws and regulations should be enacted which would grant the workers both a daily wage and a share in a fourth or fifth of the profits of the factory in accordance with its means, or which would have the workers equitably share in some other way in the profits with the owners. For the capital and the management come from the latter and the toil and labour from the former. The workers could either be granted a wage that adequately meets their daily needs, as well as a right to a share in the revenues of the factory when they are injured, incapacitated, or unable to work, or else a wage could be set that allows the workers to both satisfy their daily needs and save a little for times of weakness and incapacity.38‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Some Answered Questions, No. 78. Available at www.bahai.org/r/389724725
One potential measure outlined here is profit sharing—sharing between a fourth to a fifth of the profits of the factory “in accordance with its means”—as part of a nation’s “laws and regulations.” Another is setting wages according to need, not just market prices; a subtle but significant change from today’s practices.
Other proposals ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers include progressive taxation based on needs. He writes, for example, that
[e]ach person in the community whose income is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs, he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man’s capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation. If his production exceeds he will pay a tax; if his necessities exceed his production he shall receive an amount sufficient to equalize or adjust. Therefore, taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production and there will be no poor in the community.39‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 217. In other writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá provides examples where, depending on an individual’s surplus, they may be taxed anywhere between 25 and 50 percent. Available at www.bahai.org/r/828752876
Today, the majority of government revenues come from individual income taxes. Interestingly, in many countries, individuals have become richer while their governments have become poorer, as reflected in the net share of public and private capital held in each country (see, for example, Figure A.3 in the Appendix). To illustrate, consider the case of Germany. In 2015, the value of net public wealth (i.e., public capital) stood at 18 percent of national income. Private wealth, on the other hand, stood at over 420 percent of national income. By way of comparison, net public wealth in the United States in 2015 was -17 percent of national income, whereas private capital stood at over 500 percent.
This unequal ownership of capital—between private citizens and the state—may also explain rising inequality. In the 1980s, there were demonstrably large transfers of public to private wealth in nearly all countries. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries. Arguably this limits the ability of governments to tackle inequality. But more than that, it eats away at things like trust and social cohesion, so essential for a stable, prosperous society. When governments, that is, consistently take more from the poor than the rich, establishing and maintaining trust in public institutions becomes increasingly difficult.
The idea is not to punish wealth but to avoid the privatization—and hence polarization—of society, whereby only those with means can afford things like quality education and healthcare. The solution called for by a number of progressive economists includes a combination of policies aimed at, on the one hand, redistribution—for example, a steeply progressive tax not just on income but on wealth and effective corporate taxation strategies to curb tax avoidance—and, on the other, pre-distribution—that is, sufficient social spending to fund a modern, social welfare state with strong investments in education and healthcare to ensure everyone has an equal chance to succeed, as well as labor market regulations that do not allow for extreme wage dispersion.40For an example in the case of the United States, see Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019).
Aspiring as Individuals Towards a Just Economy
The market economy has, in some respects, led to wonders in human coordination. That products, the constituent parts of which may come from a variety of different countries, can be delivered to one’s doorstep within days of ordering speaks to humanity’s capacity to innovate, create, and manage higher and higher levels of complexity. Such systems, although not without serious shortcomings, merit praise, not condemnation.
At the same time, many societies are organized so as to place economic growth as the central, dominating process of human life, to the point where all other processes are subordinated to it. Organizing society to serve the needs of the economy has had significant consequences for the way we understand human nature and human relationships. Achieving a deeply just social order will thus require more than just a few cosmetic changes—as vital and essential as they may be—to the way taxes are set and who receives which transfers. It also requires a fundamental examination of the ways in which market-embedded societies have influenced our understanding of human nature and our relationships—to one another and to the market—and an effort to reconstruct those relationships in light of spiritual principle.
Consider the example of consumption. It is no secret that one of the deliberate goals of the global development effort of the 20th century was to push the developing nations of the world through a “set” of development “stages” culminating in the “age of high mass-consumption.”41Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). To sustain high levels of economic growth, great attention was given to ensuring that people turn to the market not just to satisfy needs but to fulfill wants. Influential economists, many of whom provided the intellectual support for major policy reform aimed at economic expansion, were explicit in their intentions to stimulate and expand people’s wants. The idea put forward at the time was that “wants are limited because the goods one knows about and can use are limited.”42Arthur Lewis, The Theory of Economic Growth (1955; Reprinted in 2003 by Routledge). Increase people’s wants, and their consumption—and hence demand for economic goods and services—will increase. Thus, the key for societies, therefore, lay in spreading knowledge of new goods among the populace since this was “the key to the expansion of wants.”43Ibid
For those concerned about a viable, sustainable future, the line of demarcation between needs and wants is a profound one, with serious implications for the economy. Satisfying the needs of an individual whose main purpose in life is to serve others in an effort to contribute to a more just society will call for a very different set of economic arrangements than those required to satisfy individuals who, influenced by sources of propaganda and advertisement, are led to discover new “needs” every day. The words of Bahá’u’lláh leave a penetrating influence:
O Son of Man! Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My knowledge, and that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine?44Bahá’u’lláh. The Hidden Words from the Arabic No. 56. Available at www.bahai.org/r/748392247
Of course, the discussion of needs and wants necessarily comes with a number of caveats. For one, there is no universal set of needs applicable to all people at all times: Different people have different needs and indeed the same person will likely have different needs at different points in his or her life. For another, needs can also be considered in terms of their quantity and degree. One may require a suit for his or her profession. But how many suits are needed? And does one need a suit with a designer brand when a suit of similar quality and look without the label would suffice just as well? Of course, this is not to say that only legitimate needs are good and that all forms of desire are bad. It is just that without reflection on our consumption habits, we may be prone to encourage the worst tendencies of the market while foregoing opportunities to refine our higher nature. More than anything, the issue appears to be one of awareness: How conscious are we of what we consume and why? Ultimately, the House of Justice explains, “Managing one’s financial affairs in accordance with spiritual principles is an indispensable dimension of a life lived coherently. It is a matter of conscience, a way in which commitment to the betterment of the world is translated into practice.”45Universal House of Justice, letter of 29 December 2015 to the Conference of the Continental Board of Counsellors. Available at www.bahai.org/r/521400059
Human compassion and love
Evaluating the worth of a person by his or her economic status is another tendency that a society focused on acquisition promotes, and a tendency we would need to do away with in an effort to build an economy based on spiritual principle. “To view the worth of an individual,” the House of Justice clearly writes, “chiefly in terms of how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others is wholly alien to Bahá’í thought.”46Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/476802933 This has implications for our attitude towards the poor. “No deed of man is greater before God,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “than helping the poor. Each one of you must have great consideration for the poor and render them assistance.”47‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/305820706 In addition to legal codes and regulations, then, those with means are called upon to be “merciful to the poor” and to contribute “from willing hearts to their needs without being forced or compelled to do so.”48Ibid. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904155405 Achieving this level of compassion requires love. He writes, for example:
Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.49Ibid. Available at www.bahai.org/r/978851230
Introducing such ideas into contemporary discourse may seem difficult. In trying, it is helpful to note that these ideals have received intellectual support for many years. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, Adam Smith draws on these elements of our nature in an effort to offer a sweeping account of moral philosophy that underpinned much of his economic thinking. For example, he writes that “[m]an naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.” Moreover, he explains:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.50Smith, Adam. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 2010 Penguin Classics edition.
These ideals are also supported by empirical evidence. One influential economic article notes, for example, that
[a]lmost all economic models assume that all people are exclusively pursuing their material self-interest and do not care about “social” goals per se. This may be true for some (maybe many) people, but it is certainly not true for everybody. By now we have substantial evidence suggesting that fairness motives affect the behavior of many people.51Ernest Fehr and Klaus M. Schmidt, “A Theory of Fairness, Competition and Cooperation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 114, no.3 (1999):817-868.
In recent decades, the economics of altruism have flourished, and there are many examples that show human beings to be more than the calculating, self-interested being that initial, primitive models suggest. There is evidence that demonstrates we are motivated as much by considerations of fairness and cooperation as we are by selfish ones. Being motivated by considerations of love and compassion will surely be added to the list.
As it relates to the distribution of economic resources, then, an economy based on the principles of justice and equity does not object to efforts to improve material conditions or to increase wealth and income. The objection is that such efforts have come at the expense of an expanded view of human nature that includes a spiritual dimension. Markets, this article has argued, are social constructs. The policies we choose matter. The candidates we elect matter. The goods and services we consume matter. The understanding we have of human nature and of the purpose of our existence matters. All these things have significant cumulative effects on the way that markets, and their outcomes, are structured. “Every choice a Bahá’í makes,” the House of Justice clearly explains, “leaves a trace, and the moral duty to lead a coherent life demands that one’s economic decisions be in accordance with lofty ideals.”52Universal House of Justice, letter of 1 March 2017 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding economic life. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904550633 Through moderate yet bold legislative adjustment and a spiritually awakened populace, it is possible for material and spiritual prosperity to coexist.
It is often assumed that income inequality is caused by the operation of impersonal market forces, the like of which include wages, advances in technology, increased market competition, and the rising returns of individual investments in education. While there is little doubt about the pivotal role economic forces play in generating and distributing wealth, economic rationale alone cannot explain income disparities that are everywhere occurring as a result of the gross accumulation of wealth by those at the very top of the income distribution. Fostering economic justice requires a spirit of charity, to be sure, based on an understanding of our inherent interconnectedness as a human family. But it also requires strong institutional arrangements that prevent people from over-accumulating at the top and under-accumulating at the bottom.
Measuring Income and Wealth
This article has used three types of inequality rather interchangeably, namely, economic inequality, income inequality, and wealth inequality. Although the basic conclusions of the article are insensitive to which measure is used, the interested reader may be curious to know more precise definitions for each.
Economic inequality vs. income inequality
It is acknowledged that income inequality is but one of many inequalities that we may be concerned about, including non-economic ones. Even within the economic realm, economic inequality is a rather broad concept referring to non-income related inequalities. Amartya Sen makes an argument to distinguish between narrow forms of inequality based on income and broader forms of economic inequality. As he puts it:
The argument for shifting our attention from income inequality to economic inequality relates to the presence of causal influences on individual well-being and freedom that are economic in nature but that are not captured by the simple statistics of incomes and commodity holdings.53Amartya K. Sen, “From Income Inequality to Economic Inequality,” Southern Economic Journal 64, no. 2 (1997):383-401.
He lists influences such as environmental diversities, variations in social climate, personal heterogeneity (disabilities, illness etc.), and distributions within households as examples of how economic inequality is broader than simple measures of disparity in income. Although related, the facts and figures discussed in this article are more concerned with wealth and income inequality rather than broader measures of economic inequality.
Income and wealth: What is the difference?
Most of the facts and figures under discussion are related to income inequality, which includes the component parts of income from labor (i.e., wages), income derived from wealth (i.e., profits and capital gains), and inequality derived from expenditure on consumption. There are two issues to bear in mind with this measure. First, the income figures presented measure pre-taxincome. In some sense, then, the figures present inequality as generated by the market economy but do not reflect the efforts of states, via measures like taxes and transfers, to correct for inequalities. A second issue is that taxable income does not enjoy a uniform definition. Different nations count taxable income slightly differently—indeed, the same country may count it differently at different points in its development—and no adjustments are made to account for any potential discrepancies.
There is also the issue of wealth inequality, which typically refers to inequality in things like land-holdings and property, financial assets, capital stock, and so on. Wealth is harder to measure than income, and thus most discussions on inequality refer to income inequality. Nonetheless, wealth and income are highly correlated and wealth is usually much more concentrated than income. As Piketty explains:
There are important differences between income and wealth inequality dynamics, however. First, we stress that wealth concentration is always much higher than income concentration. The top decile wealth share typically falls in the 60 to 90% range, whereas the top decile income share is in the 30% to 50% range. Even more striking, the bottom 50% wealth share is always less than 5%, whereas the bottom 50% income share generally falls in the 20 to 30% range. The bottom half of the population hardly owns any wealth, but it does earn appreciable income: On average, members of the bottom half of the population (wealth-wise) own less than one-tenth of the average wealth, while members of the bottom half of the population (income-wise) earn about half the average income.
In sum, the concentration of capital ownership is always extreme, so that the very notion of capital is fairly abstract for large segments—if not the majority—of the population. The inequality of labor income can be high, but it is usually much less extreme. It is also less controversial, partly because it is viewed as more merit-based. Whether this is justified is a highly complex and debated issue to which we later return.54Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Inequality in the Long Run,” Science 34, no.6168 (2014): 838-843.
Measuring income and wealth
There are, by and large, two predominant methods to measure the distribution of income. The first relies on an index called the gini coefficient and is derived primarily through household survey information. The second, arguably more reliable measure which has recently been championed by a number of prominent economists, relies on a combination of data from national income and wealth accounts, fiscal data coming from taxes on income and, to an extent, household income and wealth surveys. All of the facts and figures presented here are based on this measure of distribution—unless otherwise stated—and are taken from the World Inequality Database which can be accessed at wid.world.