-> {Philosophy, Reviews} -> On the value of moral freedom in A Clockwork Orange

Published 2012-07-23.

The author’s introduction offers some insight on the title of A Clockwork Orange:

…by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange–meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour 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. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate.

I’ve heard this opinion before, and I think it’s awful. This “moral choice” comes at quite a cost (which this novel takes pains to illustrate with beatings, murders, and molestations). There’s no reason to value it so highly, if at all.

It’s tempting, particularly for those who believe in an all-good God, to look for a vantage point from which the suffering that people cause can be understood as the inevitable result of some greater good. But is it really plausible that if nobody ever even had the idea of, say, raping a child, the world would be somehow worse? (You could point to the experience of forgiveness or to certain works of art as requiring evil for their existence, but it seems quite a stretch to compare the value of such things with the extremes of pain we inflict on one another.)

Some people seem to feel that everything would be meaningless without free choices. A friend once said he had to believe in free will or else, what would be the point of doing anything? That’s nuts. My reason for eating candy, writing essays, forming friendships, (ineffectually) flirting, or playing music is not that I relish some imagined status as ultimate author of those actions. No, I enjoy those things or their expected effects; being predetermined to do them does not diminish that.

Anyway, in A Clockwork Orange the government reprograms Alex to always do right. Burgess makes this out to be a horrible intention, but the only horrible thing I see is what a lousy job they do. They don’t make him want to do good, they just make him suffer upon having certain thoughts; it’s merely a punishment meted out with unusual promptness. While I’d certainly have low confidence in a government’s ability in practice to alter my brain without doing more harm than good, the goal of eliminating damaging behavior seems reasonable in itself.