Free Will and A Clockwork Orange

Free Will is the idea that we can choose between alternatives, it usually includes the belief that we could have done otherwise. Philosophers have claimed that this is problematic because, in a scientific world view, where every state necessarily follows from the previous one, everything is, in fact, determined — this is usually called determinism. Determinism implies that everything that will happen in the Universe until the very last event is determined from the Big Bang. This is problematic because, if everything is determined, in what sense can we say that we can choose between alternatives and that we could have done otherwise?

Determinism is not the only possible scientific world view. In Quantum Mechanics scientists accept that certain things are undetermined. There are things that are random or uncertain, it is possible that something just “pops into existence”. However, philosophers have pointed out that this does not give us Free Will either. When we make a choice, we don’t want to say we chose chocolate or vanilla ice-cream because that choice just “popped up” in our minds randomly. We want to say we made the choice! This problem, the idea that neither determinism nor indeterminism gives us free will is also sometimes called “pessimism about free will”. This argument is presented by Galen Strawson.

If we accept the pessimism argument, we can still ask, can we talk about free will regardless? The other side of the free will debate coin is the question of responsibility. If there is no Free Will (being in a deterministic or indeterministic world), how can we speak of moral responsibility? Peter Strawson (Galen Strawson’s father) addressed this issue in “Freedom and Resentment”. In this work, he argues that even if determinism is adopted as a true worldview, that should not lead us to change our minds about moral responsibility. He claims that determinism should not “mean the end of gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness; of all reciprocated adult loves; of all the essentially personal antagonisms.” That is, even if we don’t think people have an “absolute choice”, we can still be grateful for an action, and resentful for another action. We can still impart moral responsibility to a person.

In “Freedom and Resentment”, Peter Strawson goes on to say that he believes our attitudes towards the ultimate nature of the world will not affect how we attribute moral responsibility for two reasons: “The first is that we cannot, as we are, seriously envisage ourselves adopting a thoroughgoing objectivity of attitude to others as a result of theoretical conviction of the truth of determinism; and the second is that when we do in fact adopt such an attitude in a particular case, our doing so is not the consequence of a theoretical conviction which might be expressed as ‘Determinism in this case’, but is a consequence of our abandoning, for different reasons in different cases, the ordinary inter-personal attitudes.”

What this means, I think is this: 1) we don’t change our attitudes towards others because of our scientific world views, and 2) when we do want to excuse others for what they did we don’t use as an excuse that “the nature of world is determined therefore it wasn’t the person’s fault”. When someone does something we think is wrong we either attribute responsibility to them if they are relatively adequate human beings that can function well in most respects. On the other hand, we excuse responsibility when we pinpoint a serious issue that stops the individual from being a relatively normal human being, for instance, a large tumor was affecting the behavior, or their upbringing was so traumatic that is made it impossible for that person to act otherwise in that circumstance.

This stance towards responsibility, according to Strawson, is humane and should not be changed because of speculations about the ultimate nature of the universe. Even if the ultimate nature of the world is determinist, even if it is purely mechanical, it would be wrong to treat individuals as purely mechanical, as “clockwork oranges”. The author of the book, “A Clockwork Orange”, Anthony Burgess explains in “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” that the title refers to a person who “has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.” Peter Strawson had similar grievances towards Behaviorism, a psychological paradigm that studied manipulation of human behavior, assuming that we are just wind up toys that can be trained, manipulated and fixed. In my interpretation of the film, Kubrick (with the help of Malcolm McDowell) creates a brilliant visual and narrative exemplification of what it would mean for us to see actions in a purely mechanical manner.

In Kubrick's film, the main character, Little Alex (Malcolm McDowell), seems to be devoid of any moral constraints. He uses “ultra-violence” whenever he wants. In the first half of the movie he beats up a homeless man for no reason (he says he doesn’t like old people), he rapes a woman while singing the song “Singing in the Rain” in front of her husband, the gang fights a rival gang and then he humiliates the other members of his own gang, and finally he kills a women in a house robbery. Most of his violent actions do not seem to have any specific motivation, except for when they fight the rival gang or he is violent towards his gang, it seems like he is doing that to establish his leadership. But the other actions are presented with no background, in a very plain type of way.

The fact that the film does not show any background story or reason for Alex’s violent actions is extremely disconcerting. As Peter Strawson says, it is human to want to attribute guilt or forgiveness for an action, but with zero motivational and background story, we are uncomfortable while making a judgment. Kubrick leaves us suspended throughout all the violent scenes. Why is Alex doing this? Sure, the scenes are repugnant, but Kubrick is also careful to make sure that none of the other characters in the movie are likable either. They are all weirdly grotesque so that our sympathies do not lie with them completely. He is foiling our human efforts to make sense of what we are seeing. Basically, he is already presenting those actions as those of a “clockwork orange”. These are actions we are not able to fit into our understanding, they just are what they are. If you have not seen the film, please stop reading and go see it. Then come back, with that disconcerting feeling in mind. I think this is exactly what Peter Strawson was talking about.

It is interesting that usually, the second half of the film is the one that is supposed to have the “clockwork orange” theme — when he gets the “treatment” in prison. What I am claiming here is that the first half is already presenting that theme by robbing us of the ability to make a final judgment on the actions. Sure they are horrible; we don’t like Alex, he is a psychopath. But we don’t know anything about him. The victims seem also incredibly strange and we can’t quite get ourselves to sympathize with them either. The violence is raw. It is what it is. If we did indeed take determinism seriously, this is possibly how we would be forced to look at such acts of violence — in an uncomfortable stance with no perspective, no side to take, no understanding. Exactly what Peter Strawson says we can’t do, or won’t do, or shouldn’t do.

The second half of the film is the other side of this coin. If we are to be understood indeed as pure mechanisms, if we understand people at the descriptive level only, then the idea of blame, punishing bad behavior, encouraging good behavior etc., becomes a purely mechanical one as well. If an individual, such as Alex, is exhibiting behavior we do not want to tolerate, we can pick the individual up and modify him via conditioning. In the film, scientists are trying out a new “treatment” that supposedly “cures” violent behavior (in fact it just curbs it). The treatment consists of showing violent images, making the prisoner watch them (with eyes pried open) and simultaneously administering a drug that gives a sensation of inescapable dread. This way the criminal will never be able to do anything violent again in his life. One accidental side effect of this treatment turns out to be that he is unable to listen to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, something he used to love, but now has been conditioned to feel ultimate dread whenever he hears it.

The prison priest objects by saying: “Choice! The boy has not a real choice, has he? Self-interest, the fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. The insincerity was clear to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” To this, the minister responds: “Padre, there are subtleties! We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime and with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the heart at the thought of killing a fly. Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works!” This dichotomy between the priest and the minister resembles Kant, as an ultimate defender of Free Will, and the Utilitarians: “The point is that it works!” But I think the movie's message goes beyond this.

The problem is not that he lost his free will. He may not have had a free will to begin with. However, even if he was always a clockwork orange anyway, a mechanism that is physically determined, we can argue that it is wrong to abandon the humane perspective when looking at him. This is what Peter Strawson says. If determinism is true, and we are clockwork oranges, would it be rational to treat us as non-moral agents or should we still treat each other as moral agents? Peter Strawson answers thus: “To this I shall reply, first, that… our natural human commitment to ordinary inter-personal attitudes… is part of the general framework of human life, not something that can come up for review as particular cases can come up for review within this general framework. And I shall reply, second, that if we could imagine what we cannot have, viz, a choice in this matter, then we could choose rationally only in the light of an assessment of the gains and losses to human life, its enrichment or impoverishment; and the truth or falsity of a general thesis of determinism would not bear on the rationality of this choice.” That is, what do we have to gain or lose by treating humans as mere mechanisms? If we have something to gain, then it is rational to do so, if we lose something essential, then it is not rational to do so.

Alex’s example in the film shows that we may have more to lose than to gain. In the second half of the movie he now is incapable of acting violently no matter what. All the people that he behaved violently towards in the first half of the film are now violent towards him and he is not able to react. The revenge escalates and the man whose wife he raped concocts a scheme where he is forced to listen to Beethoven’s 9th in order to make him commit suicide. The viewers do not understand this as acts of well-deserved revenge. It is not your typical eye for an eye. He is now helpless and we tend to be on his side, except he is a horrible criminal, so we are not completely on his side. Yet again, Kubrick is a master in manipulating the viewer, he won’t let you ally with either side. You have to see this purely descriptively and we can’t take the human perspective. We can’t praise or blame anyone. It is just what it is all over again. The question is: did we gain anything, any insight, from witnessing these events in this way? Is this a better way to understand human behavior? If you have seen the movie, tell me in the comments if you think you learned anything. I didn’t. It is not useful at all to look at a person’s actions in this way. I agree with Peter Strawson, even if we are pure mechanisms, praising and blaming, understanding the actions through background and motivation, identifying moral agency, all these things are useful.

The movie, interestingly, was based on the American version of the original book by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. However, the movie is missing its final chapter. In the final chapter, Burgess talks about what happens two years later, when Alex is indeed cured. Burgess explained in an interview: “He grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction,” The idea here is that people can change their ways by their own means, using their own reasons, and not by mechanical manipulation of their brains. I think this ending is much more coherent with Peter Strawson’s view. We can talk to Alex, he can come to the realization that “ultra-violence” is not a good way to live. And if he doesn’t, we can blame him and restrain him, but by manipulating his brain we are leaving these options off the shelf. And as Peter Strawson would argue, it is not more rational to do so.

PhD in Philosophy, Professor, Artist, Movie Buff.

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