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Primo Levi Essay

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Primo Levi Essay Assignment

Morality, in its first descriptive usage (as defined by WikiPedia), means “a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong, whether by society, philosophy, religion, or individual conscience.”  In its second, normative and universal, sense, morality refers to “an ideal code of conduct, one which would be espoused in preference to alternatives by all rational people, under specified conditions.”

What if the specified condition was of a catastrophic or life threatening nature?  How much of your moral foundation would you compromise in order to ensure your survival? Are we as humans sometimes forced to sacrifice morality for survival?  Is it possible or logical that an extreme situation or catastrophic event combined with the human desire for self-preservation could produce any degree of morality?

In Primo Levi’s tragic narrative, he shares ten months of his life with us beginning in 1943 when he, then a 25-year old chemist, was deported from Turin, Italy, to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland.  During Levi’s time in the camp he witnessed and endured the suffering, horrors, and atrocities of the Holocaust.  As he sketches a grim portrait of his existence in the Lager and tells of the Market where prisoners will literally sell the shirt off their backs and the gold from their teeth for a ration of bread or for a packet of tobacco, he asks the readers to judge “how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.”

If we consider Levi’s experiences, we can conclude that humans sometimes indeed are forced to sacrifice morality for survival.  To the prisoners in Auschwitz it was morally acceptable to steal and trade the stolen goods for food to survive than to follow their previously ingrained morals and starve to death.  The Germans destroyed the prisoners’ sense of identity, self worth, and established social interactions, as indicated by Levi when he states “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one; it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” Levi describes how that a man who is deprived of everything “will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint…a man who loses all often loses himself.”  Tearing away all that the men had known up to the point of entering the concentration camp, this most likely removed whatever moral constitutions or social norms existed.  Instead of brotherhood, there is commerce; a black market where a stolen bar of soap is traded for a loaf of bread that allows its owner to barely escape severe hunger for one more day.  Facing the grim possibility of death by starving, looting no longer was a moral “wrong”; in this situation it was a way of life.  The prisoners, driven to desperation by hunger, slowly came to an understanding that the morality of survival is a higher morality than the morality of right, wrong, fairness or religion.   Theirs was the morality of survival, the morality of life as they now know it.  

The societal implications of this conflict between morals and survival are complex and far-reaching.  As discussed earlier, morality is the compromise achieved within a group or society, which attempts to serve the mutual self interests and self protection of each

individual member of the society. This sense of morality developed as a part of the survival tools and strategies which allow us to co-exist in peace socially and work in groups. Human cultures tend to share similar morals; acts such as murder, cruelty (except against enemies), rape, theft, and other violent actions which force one person's will upon another are deemed morally unacceptable. The legal system solidifies this by making some of these immoral acts illegal.  The fact that there is some agreement among cultures seems to indicate a common source of moral conscience and a desire to secure our individual safety and well being, a standard to which all humans attempt to adhere.  



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