The third valley, which ultimately leads to the mountains of social justice, is swarming with people. On its lower slopes are the rural poor, trying to subsist on diminishing resources. The degraded soil, the last few trees for firewood, the long walks to find water and now a changing climate, risk pushing them over the edge into forced migration for survival. The valley bottom is filled with endless slums of people packed together in miserable conditions. On a few hills are the urban castles of the rich, who flaunt their wealth and condemn the poor for not making the effort to succeed as they have done. Crime is rife, riots are frequent and wars occasionally sweep the valley and devastate it before survivors slowly rebuild from the ruins. Crossing this valley is full of risks, requiring humility, honesty and solidarity. Here are some of the challenges you will face in this valley.




The basic reason that there are so many people trapped in the bottom of this valley is the lack of unity. Humans are a social species: as infants we cannot survive without a supporting family; children learn to socialize; and every community, culture and nation has its own rules for social cohesion. But as the world has globalized and technology has removed the former barriers between peoples, the old social cohesions of tribe, culture or nation - appropriate to smaller scales of human organization - have lost their meaning. Only by giving first priority to the unity of the whole human race can we appreciate positively the great diversity within it and work for its collective progress.

Without unity, we have a very sick society. Some cling to nationalism and want to keep their nation pure and unadulterated by other peoples. We have seen the consequences of such ideologies in Nazi Germany. In times of insecurity and economic crisis it is easy for those seeking power through populism to fan the flames of xenophobia or a morbid dislike of foreigners - often leading to hate crimes.

These and other forms of prejudice throw up walls between peoples. How can anyone move through and out of this valley when there are so many barriers? Another symptom of social illness is the exclusion or marginalization of certain groups, who are sometimes used as scapegoats and are blamed for everything wrong in society to distract attention from the real causes of the problems.




Another obstacle in this valley is extreme inequality. While the world economy has created unimaginable wealth, this has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, increasing levels of social inequality. Sometimes these differences are institutionalized and perpetuated as social classes or castes that children are born into and cannot leave. Again, these are social barriers that prevent people from fulfilling their potential and truly contributing to society.

The extreme differences in wealth between countries and the failure to resolve the challenges of development among the poor, lead to wave upon wave of migration as people try to escape poverty and look to wealthier regions for a better life. To this is added the flood of refugees escaping war and persecution and soon climate change will displace many millions more. Today this is seen as a social crisis; but people have always migrated and national frontiers are a relatively new invention. Immigration, in fact, is good for an economy.1 The American economy, for example, was built by immigrants. Rather than waiting for humanitarian crises to force migration upon us, society should anticipate the need for people to move as as part of social justice, and manage the process to everyone's benefit.



Social breakdown

Another risk in this valley of social illnesses is the breakdown of family structures and relationships, in which children are often the principal victims. There is a similar breakdown in any sense of community, with so many people feeling lonely - even within a busy city. Some of the symptoms are rising levels of crime and insecurity. Tellingly, this is most obvious with rising levels of wealth, when wealth ought to be increasing wellbeing rather than reducing it.

The largest scale of social illness is expressed as war and terrorism, when one group or nation sets out to destroy as much of another as possible. What a contradiction, when everyone dreams of peace and security! Today the rot has gone so far that we see widespread failures of governance and even failed states.

None of this is inevitable or beyond our control. All human institutions were designed and built by people, so we can change them if we really want to. But this requires both more of a systems approach and transforming people, with challenges you will face in a later valley. For the moment, let us address social cohesion and then whether we are naturally aggressive and violent or capable of rising above such impulses and behaviours.



Social cohesion

One key to escaping from this valley is social cohesion. Recent research, applying the techniques used to model the rise and fall of animal populations and to explore similar processes in empires and civilizations, has analysed what makes empires grow and then collapse - looking at Russia, Rome, Islam and Medieval Europe, among others.

Societies on a frontier between two very different cultures are subject to stresses that force them to build social cohesion to resist enemies. The strength that comes from cohesion, effective organization and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good allows such societies to expand into empires. The success of an empire, however, contains the seeds of its own downfall. The wealth of a growing population and improving technology produces a successful elite, until excess population growth allows increased exploitation of labour and an overshoot of food production capacity - in which the poor suffer and the elite continue to live well. A generation later, the excessive concentration of wealth leads to conflict among a too numerous elite over a shrinking resource base. The young rich start falling into poverty and revolt, and the civilization loses cohesion and collapses, perhaps through several cycles.2

This view is a largely negative one, showing that it takes wars to build empires and civil wars to destroy them. Within such a framework, wars are what built a spirit of cooperation in society and are reflective of cultures with the highest levels of cooperation.3

It is worth asking whether forces other than war and the constant threat of an enemy on a geographical frontier can bring about social cohesion. The rise of a new religion, for example, can create another kind of cultural frontier, with those sharing the new values building social cohesion as they work to transform society. A highly cohesive social and spiritual movement could overcome the negative forces around it and expand rapidly into a global civilization, as did Islam.

The mountain range of justice that rises out of this valley is founded on social cohesion. This comes not from constant external threats but from an inner spiritual force for unity in diversity. Such social cohesion can build a civilization able to achieve sustainability in its use of resources, prevent the excessive concentration of wealth in an elite and thus rise above the cycle of decline and fall that has characterized past civilizations - or at least slow the cycle to the millennial span of religious revelations.



Altruism and cooperation

Another barrier to leaving this valley is the assumption, most obvious in today's dominant neoliberal economic paradigm, that people are inevitably selfish, aggressive and competitive, only looking out for their own self-interest. Many people have adopted these values because they believe these are natural human impulses. Yet much recent research shows that this is not the case.

Group selection favours altruism, as it enhances the strength and competitiveness of groups, and it has advanced during human evolution by natural selection at the group level. While selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, groups of altruists defeat groups of selfish individuals. We are basically tribal and seek out groups and these groups favour trust and virtue. We automatically feel empathy for the pain of others and are prone to be moral, to do the right thing, to hold back, to give aid to others - sometimes even at personal risk - because natural selection has favoured those interactions of group members benefitting the group as a whole.4

The emotions with which we condemn others, like contempt, anger and disgust, prompt us to punish cheaters. The emotions with which we praise others, including gratitude and elevation, moral awe or being moved, encourage us to reward altruists. The emotions that allow us to share the suffering of others, such as sympathy, compassion and empathy, prompt us to help a needy beneficiary. The self-conscious emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment incite us to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.5

Other research also demonstrates that cooperation wins out over cheating. In the classic prisoner's dilemma, the cheater who sells out his partner tends to win, but as soon as a social dimension is added where people refuse to cooperate with cheaters, a cooperative approach is more effective. Altruism is at the core of social justice and cohesion.6

More broadly, among those things that contribute to happiness is the happiness that comes from leading an ethical and virtuous life.7 Of course, this is nothing new, as religions have been saying as much for thousands of years. It is our materialistic society that has forgotten our fundamental purpose to cultivate ethical and spiritual virtues like altruism and to rise above the selfishness of our animal nature that normally we should grow out of in childhood.



Putting social justice into action

Now that you can rise above the misconceptions about social relationships and accept that change is possible, you can start your climb out of this valley up to the mountains of justice on the path of social action. This is not to say that we know all the answers and the path will be easy. It is a difficult climb; but the guide below is a synthesis of the processes that need to be followed.8

If our goal is social justice, we need clear concepts of society and social progress. There is general agreement today that social progress requires a fundamental transformation in society,9 but the nature of that transformation is less clear. First, we need to agree on fundamental issues of existence, such as the nature of the human being having both material and spiritual realities and the purpose of life. We can then acknowledge that civilization has both a material and a spiritual dimension and that humanity is on the threshold of its collective maturity, building a world society. As in any time of transition in a complex system, there are destructive and constructive forces operating in the world which serve to propel humanity towards its full maturity. All social relationships need to be recast in this context, transforming simultaneously both human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. This means analysing and rethinking concepts such as power, authority, individualism, personal comfort, selfless service, work and excellence.

Where injustice has often come from abuse of power and arbitrary authority, new institutional models of govenance are needed, free from individuals seeking power. Individual initiative needs to be balanced by social responsibility. Service to others and to all of society should become the highest ideal and motivation for work, rather than accumulating wealth and seeking personal comfort. The focus of excellence should shift to intellectual, scientific, artistic and spiritual attainment. Individuals motivated by altruism and selfless service will become the best instruments for attaining social justice.



Social action

Transforming the world so that everyone can escape from this valley cannot just be an intellectual exercise. It must lead to social action and this is where each of us can find a place. Social action is not some form of development aid which can destroy dignity or create dependency, nor is it experts helping the ignorant. It should be participatory, empowering us to take charge of our own development according to our own priorities accompanying one another as we build community capacity and learn together. Social action needs strong spiritual foundations, with material advancement balanced by spiritual motivation and a vision of what the community wants to achieve together. The community develops the skills of consultation, action and reflection as it grows through its own learning. For those of you who are interested in committing your life to this, the box provides a detailed guide to effective social action.

For a detailed guide to how to undertake social action, go to BOX GUIDE TO SOCIAL ACTION



Community action

Building on the tools as described in the box, a new field of service is open to you as you begin to climb the mountains of social justice. The best place to start in creating social justice is your own community. For example, if you are young, you might begin by learning to accompany groups of pre-youth (11-14 years old) to strengthen their characters and help them discover the satisfaction that comes from acts of service to the community. Or perhaps you could organize a children's class in your neighbourhood to teach ethics and virtues to the next generation. The Bahá'ís have excellent training programmes for this that have proven their worth around the world. They also have materials for study circles, appropriate to the whole community, that can build a common understanding and purpose and motivate people to become actors in their own community development. Devotional gatherings of those of all faiths and those of none can provide a spiritual foundation for community action.

A community that has a shared spirit of solidarity, that reflects on its progress and consults on the next steps forward, that respects everyone and leaves no one behind, is the best insurance against any of the many problems that may threaten society in the years ahead. Even if the larger problems of the world seem beyond reach, community action can go far to reach the peaks of social justice and open the way to the further challenges in the valleys ahead. It is in this direct way, person to person at the neighbourhood or community level, that you can start building the unity that the world so badly needs. You do not need any special talents, training or experience, but can learn as you go along.

This is also the solution, at the most basic level, to the challenges that increasing migration is bringing to the world. When newcomers arrive and people need to learn to live together in harmony, what better way than by studying together about the principles of unity in diversity, sharing devotions across different faith traditions and consulting on the common needs of the community while building mutual understanding. If all the children learn and play together in neighbourhood classes and the junior youth organize projects of service to the community, regardless of their origins, then the foundation is laid for lasting unity in the community. This is the best expression of social justice, whereever you live.

So equipped with your new understanding of the power of social justice and with the tools of social action, you are now ready to go beyond the mountains of justice and enter the next valley on your journey of self-realization.






To start with, it is necessary to understand the goal of social action in a new way. It is not just some kind of social or economic development. It is not just the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, social structures, economic practices, models of governance and the very patterns of life prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world, or the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages. It must avoid dividing the world into "developed" and "underdeveloped", where development aid creates a relationship of charity and dependency. Social change should not be a project that one group carries out for the benefit of another, or where an expert imposes their professional perspective.

Social action must be participatory, involving the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, eliminating dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant”. The aims and methods used should empower rather than destroy the dignity of those involved. The approach should give due respect to local autonomy, while accepting to be part of a larger whole; attach importance to material means, without allowing them to become instruments of control; provide for the flow of knowledge, without introducing paternalistic attitudes; and strengthen capacity in individuals, without any regard for their economic status.

If you are to avoid contradictions, you need to become increasingly aware of the thinking and pressures of your social environment. While you can freely draw insights from the philosophies, academic theories, community programmes and social movements around you and keep current with the technological trends that influence progress, you should remain watchful that your values and spiritual principles are not bent into conformity with this or that ideology, intellectual fad or fashionable practice. You need to measure prevalent approaches, ideas, attitudes and methods with reference to their underlying values. With this capacity you can uncover the aggrandizement of self, so often lying behind initiatives that are nominally concerned with empowerment, discern the tendency of certain development efforts to foist upon the poor an entirely materialistic worldview, perceive the subtle ways in which competitiveness and greed can be promoted in the name of justice and prosperity and ultimately abandon the notion that one or another theory or movement - which may fleetingly acquire some prominence in the wider society - can provide a shortcut to meaningful change.

Everything has to start with community building, since social action comes naturally from stirrings at the grassroots rather than something imposed from outside. The main aim should be building the community's own capacity, starting at a modest scale and only growing in complexity as available human resources allow.

Learning is central to action, since there is no one 'right' way and every situation is different. The aim should be a spirit of humble learning characterized by constant action, reflection, consultation, and study, re-examining visions and strategies. As tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied and lessons learned, modifications are made in goals and methods. Learning is like the growth and differentiation of a living organism, continually advancing towards the fulfilment of its purpose while adapting to its environment. By combining this process of learning at the local level with the access to knowledge that is now available through electronic media and larger social networks, the approach avoids categorization as either bottom-up or top-down and becomes one of reciprocity and interconnectedness.10

Bringing a spiritual dimension to social action

The purpose of civilization should be to foster true prosperity, with its spiritual and material dimensions, among the diverse inhabitants of the planet. It is therefore vital to achieve a dynamic coherence between the practical and spiritual requirements of life. Effective community action needs strong spiritual foundations.

You will need to keep in mind both the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community and give due attention to both scientific and spiritual knowledge. These two sources of knowledge tap into the roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from passivity and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism. For example, scientific knowledge helps the members of a community to analyze the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good.11


Participation is another important characteristic of social action. You will want to ensure that you involve a growing number of people in a collective process of learning, focused on the nature and dynamics of a path to material and spiritual progress in the community. Everyone can engage in the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge, which is a potent and indispensable force in the advancement of civilization. In addition, the application and propagation of existing knowledge is invariably accompanied by the generation of new knowledge, including the insights acquired through experience.

In many ways, the immediate goal of a social action to produce a beneficial result is less important than the accompanying rise in the capacity of the participants. While they acquire knowledge and skills in a specific area, they strengthen their capacities to foster unity in diversity, promote justice, participate effectively in consultation and accompany others in their efforts to serve humanity. Even the smallest group of local individuals must be able to maintain a consultative environment based on honesty, fairness, patience, tolerance, and courtesy.

A process of community development needs to reach beyond the level of activity and concern itself with the culture of the community. Social action can become an occasion to raise collective consciousness of such vital principles as oneness, justice, and the equality of women and men; to promote truthfulness, equity, trustworthiness, and generosity; to enhance the ability of a community to resist the influence of destructive social forces; to demonstrate the value of cooperation as an organizing principle for activity; to fortify the collective will to act; and to combine practice with spiritual principles.12

Methods of social action

The following concepts can suggest some of the methods that can be adopted in support of social action. If a group is consulting together in the collective investigation of reality, it helps to create an atmosphere which encourages detachment from personal views and listening to others with an open mind in a collective search for the truth. Give due importance to valid empirical information, without mere opinion being raised to the status of fact. Conclusions should correspond to the complexity of the issues at hand and not be broken up into a series of simplistic points. The results and conclusions of the consultation should be presented in precise and dispassionate language. The method is important, as progress in every area of endeavour depends on the creation of an environment where everyone contributes and supports unified action.

One basic skill is reading society and formulating a vision. Every social action responds to some understanding of the nature and state of society, its challenges, the institutions operating in it, the forces influencing it and the capacities of its peoples. Reading society does not require formal studies or a review of every detail of the social reality. Conditions need to be understood progressively, both from the perspective of the purpose of a social action and in the context of spiritual principle and a vision of humanity’s collective purpose. This reading should be continually refined using the methods of science.

According to your reading of society, you need to form and refine a vision of your work within your social space. This vision is not simply a set of goals or a description of an idealized future condition. It has to express a general idea of how goals are to be achieved, the nature of the strategies to be devised, the approaches to be taken, the attitudes to be assumed and even an outline of some of the methods to be employed. Such a vision of work is never complete; it has to become more and more precise, be able to accommodate constantly evolving and ever more complex action and attain increasingly high levels of accuracy in its operation.

Consultation is another essential tool for learning in action. Whether analyzing a specific problem, attaining higher degrees of understanding on a given issue, or exploring possible courses of action, consultation may be seen as collective search for truth. Participants in a consultative process see reality from different points of view and, as these views are examined and understood, clarity is achieved. In this conception of the collective investigation of reality, truth is not a compromise between opposing interest groups. Nor does the desire to exercise power over one another animate participants in the consultative process. What they seek, rather, is the power of unified thought and action. A consultative spirit should pervade the interactions of those engaged in social action, of whatever size and complexity and the population they serve, so that the aspirations of the people, their observations and ideas are ever present and are consciously incorporated into plans and programmes.

Action and reflection on action form another critical methodology. At the heart of every endeavour is consistent, systematic action. Action, however, needs to be accompanied by constant reflection to ensure that it continues to serve the aims of the endeavour. Learning depends on structured reflection woven into a pattern of action, through which questions can emerge and methods and approaches can be adjusted. It is important to emphasize the spirit with which action is undertaken, which should include purity of motive, rectitude of conduct, humility, selflessness, and respect for human dignity.

In general, a challenge for any social action is to ensure consistency among the explicit and implicit convictions which underpin an initiative, the values promoted by it, the attitudes adopted by its participants, the methods they employ and the ends they seek. This requires consistency between belief and practice. A deep-seated recognition of the oneness of humanity should prevent all efforts from fostering disunity, isolation, separateness or competition. An unshakeable conviction in the nobility of human beings and their capacity to subdue their lower passions and develop heavenly qualities should serve to protect against prejudice and paternalism, both of which violate the dignity of people. An immutable belief in justice should ensure that resources are allocated according to the real needs and aspirations of the community rather than the whims and wishes of a privileged few. The principle of the equality of women and men should open the way not only for women to assume their role as protagonists of development and benefit from its fruits, but also for women's experience to be given more emphasis.13

Return to main text






1. MacKenzie, Debora. 2016. On the Road Again. New Scientist Vol. 230, No. 3068, 9 April 2016, pp. 29-37.

2. Turchin, Peter. 2006. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. New York: Pi Press and Plume Book, Penguin Group.

3. Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultra society: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

4. Wilson, Edward O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York. chpt, 24, The origins of morality and honor.

5. Steven Pinker. 2002. The Blank Slate, quoted in Wilson, Edward O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth, p. 248. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.

6. Nowak, Martin A., with Roger Highfield. 2011. SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Free Press.

7. Sachs, Jeffrey D. 2013. Restoring Virtue Ethics in the Quest for Happiness. Chapter 5, pp. 80-97. In John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds). World Happiness Report 2013. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Earth Institute, Columbia University.

8. OSED. 2012. Social Action. A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 26 November 2012.

9. United Nations. 2014. The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet, Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda. Document A/69/700, 4 December 2014. New York: United Nations. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/69/700&Lang=E

10. OSED. 2012. Social Action. A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 26 November 2012.

11. OSED. 2012. Social Action. A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 26 November 2012.

12. OSED. 2012. Social Action. A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 26 November 2012.

13. OSED. 2012. Social Action. A paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 26 November 2012.



© Copyright Arthur Lyon Dahl 2019