Monday, July 16, 2012

Kantian Themes in A Clockwork Orange

I've been on a "classics tear" lately, where I've decided to watch a lot of pre-90s films.  I finally got around to watching A Clockwork Orange today.  The film, for anyone who's seen it, obviously has its disturbing elements and if you have any children under sixteen, I definitely wouldn't recommend they watch it.  Nevertheless, the film is very well done.  It's one of the few movies that really moves me to think on a philosophical level.  Most of the time I watch films as a kind of escape from the business of life.  A Clockwork Orange was a pleasant surprise with respect to providing viewers with a deep ethical experience.

The film centers around a young man named Alex, aged seventeen or eighteen, who commits some morally abhorrent crimes.  Some of these include rape, assault and manslaughter.  He is finally captured by police and given a fourteen year prison sentence.  After two years, he agrees to be a subject of a controversial technique of aversion therapy.  By doing so, his sentence is immediately terminated.

The aversion therapy successfully accomplishes what it set out to do, which was for Alex to be repelled at the thought of sex and violence.  Complications the film raises notwithstanding, it is here that the film makes an important point with respect to ethics.  Alex's priest and mentor is aghast at what the doctors have done to Alex, stating boldly that "true goodness comes from within."  The aversion therapy may prevent Alex from committing future crimes, but he won't be freely choosing to do the right thing.

This is where Kant comes in.  For the great eighteenth century philosopher, one's moral actions cannot be considered good unless those actions are freely chosen.  After all, if Alex had not become physically ill at the prospect of sex and violence, he may very well have chosen those vices.  Is sparing the public from these monstrosities a good thing?  Absolutely.  But, it's certainly not good for Alex.

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