Free Will and A Clockwork Orange

******************A CLOCKWORK ORANGE SPOILERS BELOW!***********************

 

A Clockwork Orange (link) by Anthony Burgess is a fascinating novel. It is full of this weird, pseudo-Russian slang that dizzies the mind in its array of description. The moments of “the old ultra-violence” are horrifying, over-the-top, exciting, and even a little funny in their outrageousness. The plot of the book (and movie) is simple. The antihero, Alex, is a teenage thug with a taste for classical music living in some sort of dystopian UK. He and his friends, or “droogs”, beat up old people and gang-rape women for fun. After a series of committing these horrific acts, he accidentally kills a woman he’s robbing and is taken to jail by the police. In prison, he’s chosen to take part in a behavioral experiment where he’s forced to watch disturbing images with classical music layered overtop (to heighten the emotion, as a scientist says). He gains an aversion to his old ways, enough that he becomes physically sick when thinking about violence or classical music. After release from prison, he is kicked out by his parents, beaten up by cops who were his former friends, and his former victims take revenge. When one of the victims torture him with classical music, he attempts to commit suicide by jumping out a window. He wakes up in a hospital, cured of his aversion therapy and ready to go back to his old ways. In contrast to the movie, the last chapter shows Alex tired of being a delinquent and thinking of more grown up things, like having a child.

I remember when I first watched the movie. I was shocked at the violence and the rapes, enough to make me sick to my stomach. I was so horrified by the main character’s actions that I cheered during the brainwashing scene. In my mind, this sick bastard needed to get his comeuppance. However, the point of this scene, in the movie and in the book, is that this action is even more monstrous than whatever Alex and his friends did. Why? Because the government was taking away his ability to make a choice. I couldn’t connect to this message. I thought that Alex was so evil that he either had to be executed or be made incapable of harming others again.

Burgess’s thesis is that it is better for society to allow a person to do evil than to force that person to be good. The price of allowing that choice is something that we must burden, for better or worse. I can see where he’s coming from. At least in the Western world, there’s nothing more important than freedom. What I struggle with is what to do with the Alex’s of the world. I mean, he rapes two young girls and doesn’t even show remorse for his actions. In the end, he doesn’t even repent his actions, just grows tired of them.

Why does he choose to do evil? He explicitly says that he derives pleasure from it (He also asks why few are concerned with why people do good). There’s no further explanation. We never know why he likes to do the things he does. Sure you can say that he likes disrespecting authority or holding power over others, but it still loops back to the main question: Why does he like to do those things? It’s a conundrum within a conundrum. “Inception!” as the Youth of Today ™ would say.

I am interested with the origin of emotions, since it stems from the core of our being, both conscious and unconscious. Stoics contend that emotions, like pleasure, are a physiological process and simultaneously a mental process. For example, you hear a rattlesnake on a trail. Your fear surges and you deem it a threat. You might not judge it consciously, but you judge it nonetheless (See here for more discussion). So when these feelings come up, we decide whether or not to give assent to them. In essence, emotions come from some unseen part within us and it is our responsibility to decide what to do with them.

Can we control the emergence of that pleasure or replace it with something else? We do know that we can train the brain to rewire itself up to a point. Follow a good diet long enough, and you lose your cravings for simple carbs. Exercise long enough, and you’ll start feeling good when doing it. Hmm, I kind of wonder what the Stoics and Burgess would think about this field of neuroscience. Perhaps Burgess had some idea with the behavioral cue experiment portrayed in the novel. Put aside whether such a fictional process would work or not. It works, and Alex becomes a good citizen. His emotions were manipulated so that he feels disgust rather than pleasure when deciding whether to do bad things. Thus, it seems similar to what we know now. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a process to train humans away from greed, hatred, fear, etc. Does hacking your brain mean the end of free will? Maybe. I don’t think we know the whole story yet, though. Is it evil? I think Burgess would make the distinction that we choose to alter our emotions rather than have the government do it for us.

Let’s imagine a scenario where you have a brain engineering method that works. There are certain people who will have the desire or not care about doing evil, no matter their circumstances. Think about serial killers and pedophiles, who derive pleasure from their despicable actions. Would it not be better to take away that desire from their brains, rather than executing or imprisoning them? If you believe in absolute freedom, you would say no. But what about the victims? Would they say no? Now, I’m not saying the choice is between allowing pedophiles and serial killers to roam around causing mayhem or engineering the badness out of people. In the real world, we do occupy a middle ground. We imprison those who act outside the pale. But wouldn’t it be better for the victims, the perpretrators, and society if we just remove that ineffable quality that allows evil? I have a hard time saying no, especially with the truly unrepentant. I’m sure Burgess would disagree. In the end of A Clockwork Orange, Alex decides not to engage in violence because…he grows up, the implication that maturity will solve the problem. This seems unbelievable and far-fetched. I can see why the author was ambivalent about including that final chapter.

And so the answer is… I don’t know. Good, evil, nature, nurture. I should probably add what the term “a clockwork orange” means. According to Burgess, it’s slang for madness, some craziness. Perhaps all this is just unknowable and we’ll forever live outside Eden and have to live with it until the end of existence.

What do you all think? One perspective I haven’t seen much is from women. What is good and evil in that perspective? What about other cultures? Religions?

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