Is Moral Depravity Better Than Forced Morality?
A clockwork orange and the freedom of choice
Alex is a fifteen-year-old boy. He is not too fond of school and spends most of his time slacking off.
One of his favourite things to do is to hang around with his friends, or ‘droogs’ as they are referred to, Pete, George and Dim causing chaos for the people in his neighbourhood.
No one is safe from the brutality of the quartet. They pillage houses, rape women and beat people within an inch of their lives.
By all accounts, they are rotten to the core and a stain on society. One day, Alex’s luck runs out and he is caught red-handed during one of his many rampages at night.
Betrayed by his so-called friends, he finds himself in the hands of the police, who do not take kindly to his exploits. In prison, he finds his luck is no better when he engages in a fight with his cellmate.
After nearly killing the man, Alex is selected for a new and controversial treatment, one that will remove his inclination to resort to violence and turn him into a model citizen.
The treatment mortifies Alex and he soon becomes repulsed by violence in all its forms. The sight of violence brings an unbearable sickness over him, one which forces him to be good in spite of his desire not to be.
If you’re reading this and thinking this story sounds familiar, it is the basis of the famous novel A Clockwork Orange, which was turned into an even more famous and notorious film by Stanley Kubrick.
While the film was controversial for its depiction of violence, the central question at the heart of the film and novel is one which is worthy of discussion.
Is it better for someone to be inherently bad than to be coerced into leading a life of decency?
To Be Good Or To Be Bad?
When framed in this way the choice seems to be simple. Surely, it is better for someone to be good rather than bad. On the whole, this is correct, but it is a complicated question.
One of the key elements of being human is the ability to choose. We make choices every day, we are free to decide which path we can walk down. We all have the option of committing acts of good or bad.
It is this ability to choose whether to be good or bad that distinguishes us from machines and robots. They have no ability to choose, they just are. Humans, on the other hand, are able to make choices of their own free will to the betterment or detriment of society.
This is where the question of whether moral depravity is better than forced morality. If we are forced to stick to morals that we do not agree with, are we human anymore? Are we not just a machine with no say in how we lead our life?
During the novel, Alexis forced to undergo the Ludovico Technique, a process which it is hoped, will turn him into a model citizen. The process is harrowing and has a terrible effect on Alex.
Alex is subjected to prolonged images of violence, strapped into a chair, he cannot escape and must endure the images that are displayed in front of him. He feels sick and is constant distress, by today’s standards this would be considered torture.
This brings into question the morality of the state. They are trying to turn Alex into a model citizen, but they are using immoral methods to achieve this. Therefore, is it Alex that is immoral or is the state for forcing him to comply with their ideal of a citizen?
The treatment is successful and he is released back into society after two weeks. He runs into his old friend Dim, who is now a Policeman along with his old Nemesis, Billy.
They come across Alex after he is beaten up by a group of men. Instead, of helping him, they drive him to a remote location and beat him up some more. The state has decided that the best way to tackle violence in society is to meet it with violence.
Again, this calls into question how moral and decent the state truly is. Is a state that forces its citizens to adhere to their ideals and punishes those who do not meet this standard a moral society? Are they no better than Alex?
The government is willing to forgo the individual liberty of its citizens in favour of the stability of the state. Alex is a violent offender, so logic would dictate that it makes sense for him to be treated as it benefits society.
However, that impinges upon his free will and the treatment is so brutal and inhumane that he tries to commit suicide because he cannot deal with the changes that have occurred to him.
This brings us to a fundamental and important question, how does the state balance an individuals rights to speak and act as they wish while protecting people from those who wish to do harm?
Freedom of Choice
The government depicted in A Clockwork Orange has many similarities with that of a totalitarian regime. Alex’s treatment, akin to torture, is a testament to this.
In a totalitarian state, the freedom to choose how one acts and speaks is taken away. The citizens are forced to adhere to the ideals promoted by the state or face persecution. The regime restricts freedom, in its eyes, to further the betterment and stability of society as a whole.
This dilemma is played out in the novel. The prison chaplain, whom Alex became friendly with, expressed his dismay about the Ludovico Technique and its moral implications.
“He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.”
The doctor who administered the treatment is unequivocal in his response. “These are subtleties! We are not concerned with motive, with higher ethics. We are only concerned with cutting down crime.”
While the government may have noble intentions with their desire to reduce crime, the methods they choose to achieve it are questionable. By forcing Alex to adhere to their ideals, they are oppressing his freedom.
He is no longer acting out of ethical or moral conviction, no matter how bad his actions were. He has been reduced to a pawn of the state, ceasing to be an individual.
Towards the end of the novel, Alex becomes reacquainted with his old droog Pete who has reformed and is now married. Following this chance encounter, Alex finds himself taking less and less pleasure in acts of senseless violence.
He muses that he would like to settle down and start his own family, reflecting that his previous actions were a result of his childhood immaturity. From this passage, we see that Alex is not the mindless criminal the state portrays him as.
The last chapter is critical in this discussion. Despite the efforts of the state to make Alex conform and be a productive member of society, he eventually comes to this realisation himself.
The retention of his freedom to choose right or wrong, sees him choose to live his life on sturdier moral ground than before, instead of being coerced into doing so.
The central message in the book is that it is better to be able to freely choose than be forced to be good. This is a pertinent question for us in society today. With the ever-increasing creep of surveillance into our lives, the possibility for our freedoms to be restricted is high.
While Alex was far from a moral person, his treatment at the hands of the state was not much better, if not worse. In an ideal world, there would be no crime, but we do not live in a perfect world. Crime, in some form or another, is an inevitability.
If Alex had not redeemed himself in the last chapter, the case for the state intervening in the behaviour would carry more weight. But Alex’s reversal shows that he can make a moral judgement without being conditioned to do so by the government.
Once we go down the route of the state deciding what is best for society we encroach upon dangerous territory. The negative ramifications of controlling a human being and forcing them to adopt a moral code are that by doing so they must be immorally stripped of the fundamental human right to choose.
Free will often cause people to act immorally, but it is through our actions that we learn how to improve and better ourselves. By taking away this right, we are effectively taking away what it means to be human.