Ethics and Community

Vision of Society

According to the Baha'i vision of the history of humanity, human beings have been developing and advancing socially, grouping together in ever-larger units: the tribe, the city-state, and the nation. This social progress has been under the guidance of successive Manifestations of God (the founders of the world religions), who have brought the social teachings needed for these advances. Baha'u'llah taught that now is the time for humanity to move forward to the next phase of this social development, the stage of global unity. Human beings need to think of humanity as one people. In the words of Baha'u'llah, "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." The movement forward to this stage of world unity is, however, dependent on certain developments. A number of social principles need to be firmly grounded in the thinking of people; the social order needs to be radically revised; social processes need to be changed to allow greater participation by ordinary people; and international institutions need to be established that will regulate the affairs of the world more equitably than the present arrangements allow.

From: Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism
(Bahá'í International Community's Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development)

The narrowly materialistic worldview underpinning much of modern economic thinking has contributed to the degradation of human conduct, the disruption of families and communities, the corruption of public institutions, and the exploitation and marginalization of large segments of the population -- women and girls in particular. Unarguably, economic activity and the strengthening of the economy (a process that may include, but is not synonymous with, economic growth) have a central role to play in achieving the prosperity of a region and its people. Yet the shift towards a more just, peaceful and sustainable society will require attention to a harmonious dynamic between the material and non-material (or moral) dimensions of consumption and production. The latter, in particular, will be essential for laying the foundation for just and peaceful human relations; these include the generation of knowledge, the cultivation of trust and trustworthiness, eradication of racism and violence, promotion of art, beauty, science, and the capacity for collaboration and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In order to move toward world peace and unity, which is the goal that Baha'u'llah set as humanity's aim for this age, the Baha'i scriptures set forth a number of social principles that, according to the Baha'i Faith, need to be accepted by the majority of people:

  • The primary one is the oneness of the human race: that all human beings of whatever race, ethnicity, religion, or gender are equal and no rankings can be made or preference given on these grounds. Baha'u'llah abolished the religious concept of ritual purity whereby certain people are considered impure or polluting.
  • Prejudices on account of race, ethnicity, religion or gender give rise to divisiveness and conflict, damage both those who hold these prejudices and those against whom they are directed, and hold society back from progress and prosperity. They should therefore be abandoned.
  • There should be universal compulsory education for all children; education can play a key role in eliminating prejudice from society. The social role of women should be advanced so that they are equal to men; as long as women are held down, the human race is held back and world peace is more difficult.
  • All religions are fundamentally one, in the sense that they all come from a common source, all teach the same spiritual truths, and are all part of an overall plan by God for the advancement of the human race. Religion should bring about unity; otherwise it is better not to have religion.
  • Science and religion should work together to advance humanity. Since there is no reason for them to be in conflict, they should balance each other and keep each other in check.
  • It is important to achieve economic justice if there is to be peace in the world. The world needs to set up mechanisms to ensure that the rich do not use their wealth to create unjust conditions that keep the poor in permanent poverty. Achieving complete equality in wealth is impossible to achieve, but the excesses of wealth and poverty should be eliminated.

Humanity has established a hierarchical social order as the norm for civilization. Many revolutions have been started in the name of creating a more egalitarian society, but these have all failed to make any difference to this hierarchical social structure. The leaders of the Baha'i Faith have been guiding the Baha'i community toward a new social order. In the Baha'i community, there is no leadership role for individuals; all authority rests in elected institutions. All aspects of the functioning of this system, including the election process, avoid the competitive and conflictive nature of the hierarchical system.

In addition, Baha'is are encouraged to go through a program aimed at empowering every Baha'i to think for him- or herself and to have the confidence to engage in the consultation process. Part of this program involves people gathering in study circles, consulting a text from the Baha'i scripture, and reflecting on how it affects their lives or how they need to live their lives differently in light of it. The other part involves each individual engaging in acts of service to the community, visiting people in their homes, conducting children's classes, leading junior youth activities, or tutoring study circles. This exposure to community activities has the effect of opening the mind to an attitude of service and an awareness of the social needs of the community.

Transforming Society

Cultural transformation involves deliberate changes in individual choices and in institutional structures and norms. For over a decade, the worldwide Baha'i community has been endeavoring systematically to effect a transformation among individuals and communities around the world -- to inspire and build the capacity for service. The framework for action guiding these activities has been rooted in a dynamic of learning -- characterized by action, reflection, and consultation. In thousands of communities, Baha'is have set into motion neighborhood-level processes that seek to empower individuals of all ages to recognize and develop their spiritual capacities and to channel their collective energies towards the betterment of their communities. Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they have started children's classes that focus on laying the foundations of a noble and upright character. For youth aged 11-14, they have created a learning environment which helps them to form their moral identity at this critical time in their life and to develop skills which empower them to channel their constructive and creative energies toward the betterment of their communities. All are invited to take part in small groups of participatory learning around core concepts and themes which encourage individuals to become agents of change in their communities within a dynamic of learning and an orientation towards service. (From: Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, The Baha'i International Community's Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.)

The social processes that the Baha'i community is putting into effect involve the Baha'is in any area coming together and instituting cycles of community work. These cycles begun with consultation about a project, move to planning the project and carrying out the plans, and conclude with another meeting to reflect on the successes and failures of the plan and to consult about creating a new plan that will be more effective. The hope is that each time the cycle turns over, the plans get better because of the learning that is occurring in each cycle. Also fed into the reflection and consultation exercise is guidance from the central authorities of the Baha'i Faith, which is usually based on what has worked in other communities. Individuals empowered by the social service programs take part in these cycles and, because of their experiences in the service part of the program, have ideas about how to improve their society; their participation in the study circles help them to develop the ability and confidence to express their ideas.

Study Questions:
     1.     What does Baha’u’llah say is the stage that humanity has reached in its social evolution?
     2.     What are some of the social teachings of Baha'i Faith?
     3.     What are the features of the new social order that Baha'is are working toward?
     4.     What social processes are now being developed in the Baha'i community?
     5.     How, according to the Baha'i teachings, can global problems be tackled?

Back to Religion Library