Virtue and Vice in the Concentration Camps

Primo Levi on The Necessity and Limitations of Moral Judgment Under Extreme Oppression

Led by Prof. Ben Laurence (bio)


This seminar will explore Primo Levi’s profound reflections on the perils and necessity of moral judgment in the concentration camps. We will try to understand his thoughts on the ambiguity and  disorientation of the cruel universe of the German lager system, and his insistence that nonetheless moral judgment is necessary even here. We will consider his agonizing reflections on how difficult the application of moral categories is to oppressed victims. We will try to follow him into this difficult terrain as he considers who is innocent, who should be absolved, and where moral judgment must be suspended. We will ask questions like these: Why we should apply nuanced moral categories beyond the victim-oppressor binary to circumstances like these? How do systems of oppression work to subvert normal categories of moral judgment? What is to think well even under such distorted circumstances? Who has standing to morally evaluate the actions of victims of oppression? What does his work have to teach us about moral thinking outside of the concentration camp?    

Seminar Details:

  • Coursework: Readings for each meeting will be distributed in advance, but no written work will be assigned. The readings will be drawn from The Drowned and the Saved and If This is a Man.
  • Format: This is a discussion-based seminar.
  • Meetings: The seminar will be 5/14 and 5/21, 6-7:30PM, Cobb 202.
  • Eligibility: All University of Chicago students are eligible to participate.
  • Participation: To sign up, please contact Zack Loveless: