How do you become good? This is the question at the heart of “A Clockwork Orange”. The answer is that its hard and it has to come from within, at least it is an answer and the one that this movie wants us to think about. Kubrick gives us philosophy and science merging together in his sci-fi adventure. A youth on parole burning with passion and hubris commits a few crimes too many. Trying to outsmart the system, our main character gets himself signed up for an experiment that will expedite his journey out of prison so he can quickly get back to some good ole violence. He quickly learns that he underestimated the ambitous goal of the government sanctioned science experiment. The scientists upon success realized they forgot about morality along the way. Alex is free of prison, but reenters the world with more problems than he came in with. A few of the things that I would like to talk about are inclinations, moral motivation and goodness, redemption, and why the science experiment is theoretically and most likely physically possible while at the same time being doomed, philosophically speaking, from the start.
Alex is a teenager who is overrun by his passions and inclinations. When he has the urge for violence, he goes out and rapes and kills and fights. When he has the urge for sex, he picks up two girls and has sex with each of them, multiple times. He runs his own gang that have their own dress code as well. Alex is the most charismatic and dominant one of the group and so he is leader. However, his “brothers” start to slowly protest at his leadership. Alex quickly analyzes the situation and reasserts his dominance by pushing them in the water and cutting the hand of the other. Analyzing here is not really the right word, since the interior monologue of Alex was him thinking, but he says he just felt what was right to do in the situation and did it.
Pre-experiment Alex could be characterized as a lack of any sense of autonomy, any sense of him acting on rational end setting and treating himself as a being that can set ends. When he felt desire, he did it without thinking whether or not he should act on it. Alex was more of a bad case than the average teenager, whatever society, his life experiences, and his genetic make up together did to him made him worse than the average person in their desires.
However, Alex was not really being treated like he was special. He was being treated as a juvenile delinquent when he should have been given more close care to diagnose and manage his inclinations. Instead, he was left to act on his own which resulted in imprisonment for manslaughter or murder, not sure what he was convicted of in the end. During prison, he pretends to be a good boy, repenting for his sins while studying the bible. In a conversation with the priest in prison, the priest tells Alex that being good has to come from within, it cannot be forced upon one. This echoes Kant and Aristotle and common sense morality, that you have to do what is good because you know it to be good, it has to come from your own maxim.
I took a class called Society and the Brain in college. The goal of the course was to learn how the brain could be physically affected by our society. It is one thing to say you are sad or happy, but it is another your environment physically affects your brain development. One of the cases we studied was how rapid image flashing can affect peoples immediate brain responses. Subjects would be flashed with an image like puppies, but then also images of evil things like the Nazis. After so many successive flashings of images, when someone would see an image of a puppy, the scientists were able to see a similar response to what they think when they see the Nazi images. The relationship between our controlled and immediate brain responses are interesting and has important consequences from areas such as understanding depression or police officer court cases.
The experiment that the scientists used was similar. They made Alex sit and watch movies all day. While watching these movies, they gave him drugs that made him feel sick to his stomach. After this repetition, he started associating his feeling with the images on the screen. This is not the same as the above, but the experiment is not as unrealistic or sci-fi sounding to me after I took that class. If you can make someone react to puppies the same as Nazis, you can make someone feel sick to things they previously enjoyed.
If the goal of the experiment was to cure him of his inclinations, then the experiment was a failure. The experiments method only made him feel sick at the site or thought of the inclinations and seeing them. However, they did not stop them. This is why Alex would start to heave if someone were to beat him up or he saw a naked woman because those inclinations arose in his mind.
As the priest said earlier and when he protested during the exhibition to the stakeholders, this is not making people good. If you want to show to someone that their previous ways were bad, this comes with moral education and practice. Even if you were able to force Alex to not have those inclinations and say do good things like enjoy volunteering or being nice to people, he is still not a good person. He is only acting on his inclinations still.
The ironic thing about Alex’s life was that after he got out, he was a better person. It is not that he was an evil person before, he was merely a slave to his horrible passions. Alex comes home, his soul neutered by the scientists, such that he cannot harm a fly. Yet despite this, he was not welcomed home by his parents with loving arms. Leaving home, he wanders the city. A homeless person asks for some money in which he gives some. The homeless person turns out to be someone him and his gang beat almost to death, and the homeless person rallies support from his peers to beat him up. Two policeman come by to stop the beating, but it ends up being his gang members who he wronged before. These gang members beat and torture him, and he is abandoned in some woods.
Alex meanders to a nearby house which turns out to be the house of the old professor in the beginning whom he beat and raped his wife. The professor does not recognize him at first due to the mask he wore during the incident, but finds out because of his singing voice. The tragedy is the professor was seemingly enlightened morally speaking, and was going to take in the boy and use him as a protest against the government. Instead, the professor tortures Alex and causes him to jump out a window, almost dying. The professor before was going to use him in a better way, but decided to torture him for his own revenge and use him as a means to critique the government experiment by making Alex a martyr.
Alex came out of prison as harmless, whether he wanted to or not. On top of this, he started to show some true moral progress. Before prison, he most likely would have beat up the homeless person without really thinking about it and would have definitely not given him any money. Even more so is that Alex already served his state given punishment for his wrongdoings. Despite this, his family, friends, and the strangers sought to take justice in their own hand, instead of trying to extend the olive branch. Alex should have been giving a chance at redemption by all these people, but at the least Alex was not deserving of extralegal punishments on top of the legal punishment. Sticking with the Christian ethics theme of the movie as well, Alex should have at least been forgiven. Not only was he harmless, but he did his time and was showing true moral progress.