A Clockwork Orange: Freedom of choice or choosing freedom?

A Clockwork Orange

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Screenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee and  Warren Clarke

A Clockwork Orange: Freedom of choice or choosing freedom.

What is it to have freedom of choice and what can these choices lead to? Stanley Kubrick’s (1971) A Clockwork Orange can be seen to cast a critical lens on the notion of human determinism. Litch (2009, p.121) states that through the theses of human determinism our choices are not of free will but are fully determined by preceding events. Does this mean then that the anti-hero Alex had no choice throughout the movie? Were the events leading to his incarceration and choice of rehabilitation already pre-determined by some unknown causal effect?

Alex and his Droogs make their way through life on what one can only describe as violent thuggery and criminality. It is their choice to beat a homeless old man and it is their choice to rape the catlady but it is also Alex’s choice to undergo aversion therapy after his incarceration. So which of these choices reflect true freedom of choice and is freedom of choice desirable given the outcomes in the film.

It would seem that the amoral choices of Alex are not determinist as he has the ability to choose not to carry out his deeds. Stoehr (2006, p. 163) questions whether the freedom to choose is a desirable thing when you consider the actions of Alex and it would seem on viewing that perhaps the State is correct to re-program Alex’s uncontrollable desires through the ‘Ludovico Treatment’.  However, as Shaw (2008, pp.48-49) argues, Alex after the treatment is not a ‘good’ Alex but one whose ability to choose is removed by the State and this power to render him without the freedom of choice to be far more threatening.

It is, in a morose way, gratifying that Alex in the end is able to return to his ways of ultra-violence and to throw of the shackles of the State’s control of his free will. Shaw (2006, p.48) argues that it is his ability to return to his choice of vile and evil acts that speaks of the power of human free choice and it is this ability that returns him his autonomy. However the fact that he does return to his ways in some way goes to give credence to the theses of human determinism.

Alex’s reversion to his former self and the apparent ability to choose to go back to his former life does not necessarily mean determinism is at play but given the definition from the opening of this review it could be argued that Alex’s new decisions are based on his preceding actions before his treatment. However to be absolutely certain of human determinism Alex would need to be real and would need to be studied. As Litch (2009, pp.122-125) suggests there are ways to determine whether this theses holds credence but it would require testing that is not possible on fictional characters. Looking at this film in this way holds more questions than answers as to what constitutes freedom of choice and whether it actually exists, but is it possible that this was the intention of the director all along. Are we really free to choose or is every choice already determined?

Litch, M. (2009). Philosophy through film (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Shaw, D. (2008). Film and philosophy: Taking movies seriously. London: Wallflower.


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