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Adam Smith on War

The Russian invasion of Ukraine dominates international headlines with stories of incomprehensible human suffering as well as accounts of heroic valor. Vivid photos, videos and updates across social media platforms shared by children, adults, soldiers, and politicians convey daily imagery of the devastation to communities that make up a nation. Many of us wake up to daily updates hoping for a reprieve, a cease-fire, an end to the violence. We can only imagine the fear and anxiety felt by people in Kiev, Mariupol and Kharkiv. Some of us have contributed to aid organizations while a few have traveled to Ukraine or the region to support efforts directly. Many of us wish we could do more and feel a heaviness in our hearts as we navigate through our relatively safe surroundings.               

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses the limits to our capacity for empathy (sympathy) across borders as he describes the sorrow we might feel in learning about a devastating earthquake abroad. But our ability to care about others, especially across borders, wanes. We don’t know the people being affected and may not speak the language. We care more about smaller events that directly concern us than we do about larger events, even catastrophic ones far away. Our fellow feeling is strong for family, friends and even for our nation, but is limited for people across the world. 

[The state or sovereignty] is, by nature, most strongly recommended to us. Not only we ourselves, but all the objects of our kindest affections, our children, our parents, our relations, our friends, our benefactors, all those whom we naturally love and revere the most, are commonly comprehended within it; and their prosperity and safety depend in some measure upon its prosperity and safety.

TMS VI.ii.2.2


Smith wrote about international relations, national defense, and military strategy in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. As the title of his most famous book suggests, Smith believed in the critical importance of nations’ good relations (diplomacy), strong communication, and mutually beneficial trade as institutions necessary for the growth and prosperity make up and grow the wealth of nations. 

The AdamSmithWorks team would like to hear from you about how your classroom discussions and lessons address Ukraine and other current wars. We hope to support you with materials that encourage inquiry and conversation on this topic and others. 

The AdamSmithWorks Team 

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Lessons & Activities
Make Original Sources Work for You
 
The AdamSmithWorks reading guides use three types of questions based on the Great Books Shared Inquiry Handbook to help teachers and students 

This excerpt with embedded questions is from TMS VI.ii.2.1 "Of the Character of Virtue." A version of this excerpt with inserted questions (including reference to the invisible hand passage) is here.
 
Sample questions from this section include:
  • Do you agree with Adam Smith about why we tend to like our own countries more than others? Do you think it’s normal to like your own country more than other countries? Do you think it’s good? Explain.
     
  • What do you think is different today compared to when Adam Smith was alive that might explain why attitudes towards patriotism and treason could be more complicated now?
     
  • What does rivalry between countries look like today? Is it different than Adam Smith describes? Do you think this rivalry is positive, negative, or a combination of both? Why?
     
  • To what extent is it still true that countries mostly have rivalries with their close neighbors? Why or why not? Provide examples to support your case.
     

🌠May Virtual Reading Group: Star Trek & Adam Smith🌌

Go where no AdamSmithWorks Virtual Reading Group has gone before...
 
  • Is sympathy learned or innate? Is it the sign of an advanced culture?
  • Is imitation an inherent feature of a society? Is it a desirable feature?
  • What makes a society a just society? When is it acceptable to seek to alter characteristics of a society?
  • Is self-command the source of all virtues?

Adam Smith addresses these questions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. These are also among the questions addressed in Star Trek
 
  • How does The Theory of Moral Sentiments help us think through the moral dilemmas in Star Trek
  • How does Star Trek help us understand The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In this Virtual Reading Group, we will look at these two works together as a means of thinking about questions of individual behavior and the construct of society.
Are YOU interested in submitting a Lesson Plan for possible publication? Contact us at adamsmithworks@libertyfund.org.

If you missed our collection of Online Teaching Tips, you can find them and more in our TEACH collection. We've added several new Lesson Plans for middle grades and up.

Our Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments Guides are available.

Also, see our #WealthOfTweets for a fun, social media savvy approach to the Wealth of Nations.


AND don't forget our video series, with classroom conversation starters, "An Animal That Trades. Part 4, Sympathy" is particularly relevant to this collection.
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