A Philosophical Glance at Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’
By Neville Birdi
Greetings all you lewdies, today I wish to govoreet on the topic of the Kubrick cine, ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
If that confuses you, then let me clarify in English, instead of the literature and film’s own language, Nadsat – I shall be looking, through a philosophical lens, at the film, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and the central question it poses: is goodness only good if it is chosen for the sake of it being good?
‘It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is, at the same time, a running lecture on free-will.’
For those who haven’t had the disturbing, yet exhilarating, opportunity to watch the film (or read the book, for that matter) in question, the story is summarised thus:
A vicious criminal, Alex, and his band of cronies are terrorising a dystopian England. They rape, pillage, and beat their way through their lives, and do not show a shred of remorse. However, Alex accidentally murders an individual, and is caught by the police. During his sentence in prison, he volunteers to undergo an experiment that would supposedly rehabilitate him and prevent him of any evil action. Alex jumps at this opportunity as he doubts the effectiveness of the treatment and revels in the prospect that such participation would allow him to be released in only two weeks. The experiment is brutal: he is forced to watch films depicting sex and violence, whilst his favourite music, Beethoven plays over the scenes…not so bad…right?
As he is forced to watch these films, he is injected with drugs that invoke within him immense sickness and nausea. This feeling is so powerful that he begins to associate what he watches and hears with a deep sense of revulsion and illness. The thought of his once loved evil actions makes him physically ill. The treatment ends and Alex is released into society where he meets some of his previous victims. Unable to defend himself due to his nauseating fear and hatred of violence, he is beaten to near death. In the film (not in the book), Alex tries to commit suicide but fails and wakes up in a hospital – here, he realises that whatever treatment they administered to him, had been undone, and he rebegins enjoying having thoughts about sex with a woman in front of a crowd. His final thoughts are, ‘I was cured, all right’.
This story details a severely evil human being who is forced into doing good. However, this raises a question as to whether Alex’s mind and behaviour were truly good. After all, he did not really appear to have a choice…did he?
‘The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.’
The prison’s Chaplain appears to be the representation of a philosopher in this film. The Chaplain repeatedly questions the effectiveness of the treatment and states that, ‘goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen’. The idea that goodness or good actions should be chosen is a sentiment that is repeated throughout the film. Indeed, the Chaplain elaborates on this point stating that, ‘when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man’.
The message here seems to relate choice, goodness, and humanity. The Chaplain argues that Alex no longer has a free mind to choose to be good (after the treatment). This removes all responsibility and desire that could imbue Alex’s actions. Hence, Alex is not really good or doing good. One might make the claim that Alex manifests objectively inoffensive, or unharmful actions, but he is not doing good actions. Indeed, Alex would not be compelled to give to charity, which is typically held as a good action. Rather, he is simply deterred, or rendered incapable, of doing evil actions. I can extrapolate the Chaplain’s argument further: the evil that Alex once exhibited, has not been cured; it is only the symptoms that have been inhibited, but Alex at his core still maintains an evil tendency.
The Chaplain’s second statement is a little more open to interpretation: here he relates choice to man. The implication here is that what is integral to one’s humanity is the ability for one to make choices (and probably, more specifically, moral choices). If I cannot choose between doing right or wrong (and am forced down one route), then the action ceases to be right or wrong for me, it becomes a blank action that has no real quality because that action or response was predetermined.
One’s humanity rests on the ability to vest one’s actions with moral quality, if one strips that out, one may as well be a preprogrammed contraption. Indeed, this idea is echoed in the film when one of Alex’s victims says, ‘I tell you, sir, they have turned this young man into something other than a human being. He has no power of choice anymore. He’s committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good’. Here one can observe that Alex is no longer a ‘young man’ but a ‘machine’. This ‘machine’ can only pump out ‘good’ acts, but can an inanimate thing be capable of good?
I could argue that inanimate things are good for what they enable – for example, a carpenter claims that his hammer is ‘good’ as it is the best hammer in the land for hitting nails. But I would not say that the hammer is good because of some moral quality or action. I am inclined to observe Alex in the same light as the hammer: he may produce things which are useful or good, but he himself is not good, for he has no choice in the matter.
‘I see what is right and approve, but I do what is wrong.’
A further question is now raised by the film – is the moral quality of goodness found in an action’s consequences, or in the intention behind the action? The state and its experiments on Alex clearly see morality as being located in the actions generated by individuals. This would be an easier stance for the state to take – if the consequences are evil, then the state can prosecute those individuals. However, if, as the film suggests, one’s intentions are the source of morality, then there is more difficulty.
In the film, Alex’s treatment is reversed, and the audience can observe how he immediately reverts back to enjoying immoral thoughts and experiencing such desires. This would imply that throughout the time where Alex was under the treatment, he still subconsciously desired immorality, but was physically prevented from manifesting it. Thereby, morality lies within Alex’s intentions – he never really intended to be good when he was under the influence of treatment, hence his actions as a result of such treatment cannot be ascribed the label of good.
Whether morality lies in the consequences or intentions, or even somewhere in between, is still up for debate – I still wonder whether Alex’s experience of moral choice is a hidden dark reflection of what an individual suffers with, or whether an individual can have a more steadfast ingrained moral compass.
‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you watch them on a screen.’
The film ends differently to the novel: in the film, Alex’s treatment is reversed, and he returns to his evil thoughts and desires. However, in the novel, Alex realises that he has actually lost all interest in violence and immoral action and in the final chapter resolves to turn over a new leaf. The choice to have Alex return back to his evil ways might say something about Kubrick’s artistic direction of the film: although this is pure speculation, one is inclined to think that Kubrick thought that Alex would not ever be able to reverse the evil within and have goodness come from within, or at least show that the treatment had not changed the integral personality of Alex. This artistic flair is perhaps Kubrick’s message coming forth: nurture’s attempts to shape morality cannot supersede natural morality in an individual – indeed, if one wishes to be good, then one has to change one’s nature from within.
Many interpretations have been made of the novel and film, but, as a parting thought to mull on: as Science, Psychology, and indeed, Philosophy, progresses, how long will speculation go on for, before it gives way to the experiments and results themselves, and we find out our true goodness or evil…?