Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Clockwork Orange

Today I watched Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Extremely violent, but interesting from many points of view. There use of music in the movie is quite brilliant. The interlacing of the classics with grotesque scenes of violence and rape, made these scenes bearable, even palatable. A strong testament to the value of sound in the rendition of a movie. But what caught my eye was the issues raised about choice and free will. Put that together with Gourav's brilliant writings on a similar topic and I was compelled to write my thoughts down.

Specifically, the movie presents an individual who seeks violence and debauchery in every moment of his life. He is a sadist taken to the furthest extreme. He is put through a rehabilitation program, in which his body is conditioned to associate violence and sex with sickness and nausea. So all his violent or sexual thoughts are accompanied by unbearable pain, preventing him from indulging in either activity. However, while it keeps him from causing trouble, the procedure is reversed by people who are disgusted by the fact that he is no longer living under his own free will.

The question here is that while he has limited free will, he is no longer a menace to society. But then again, there has been an intrusion on the individual's liberties. So what was the right course of action. Let's consider what was the popular action in the movie. (Or at least initially, before a certain writer convinced the public to believe that a grave injustice was done to the protagonist by the conditioning. Which brings up another interesting point of how easily our convictions can be manipulated, especially by the media. But back to the issue at hand). In the movie, all wanted to keep criminals away from the street and so loved any action which promised to reduce crime. Thus the public strongly supported the program. The reasons are extremely simple, if you can prevent someone from killing someone else, then why not? In practice it is brilliant and is sure to succeed as a crime reduction effort. And who would say no to feeling safer while walking home at mid night? Besides, if the government possess the ability to reform criminals, and they dont, aren't they responsible for any misdeeds committed by the criminal? Which judge would be able to sleep at night if he prevented such a reform procedure from being carried out on a known rapist, and the rapist went forwarded and ravaged the life of an innocent teenager? Isn't pre-emptive action always a good thing? Haven't we always heard that prevention is better than cure?

On the other hand, you have the larger philosophical issue of free will. The idea that the individual is capable of making his own decisions is one on which modern society is based. All current governance systems, ranging from democracy, capitalism to the decision to abortion and freedom of religion are intricately bound to the concept of free will. Can you imagine a situation where the government decides where you shall sleep, what you shall eat, or what work you should do? I know I am exaggerating a little, but the fact is that once we start letting go of a few freedoms, it does not take much to lose all our liberties. Besides the larger philosophical issue, there is also the practical problem of reducing free will. The fact is that who decides what is right and what is wrong? And history is evidence to the fact that what may be a mortal crime yesterday is worshipped as a sign of heroism today, and vice versa. For example, slavery was a respectable and well established practice in the USA. Even Jefferson, the third President of the US also had slaves. But today it is considered an abhorrent practice. Closer to home, in India, Sati used to be considered an honorable act, but now it is only reviled. So if succeeding generations can have such wide chasms in their moralities, then isn't it quite reasonable to believe that different individuals within the same generation can have widely divided opinions on the same issue. And both may be contradictory, yet correct opinions.

It is a strong argument, however, that in every generation, there is a certain basic level of right that is accepted by everyone, well at least a sufficiently large majority. In that case, would it not be appropriate to actually perform such a procedure, as long as you remain within the bounds presented by this basic morality? Except, in practice there are two problems. One is defining the boundaries of this basic morality, which allows unscrupulous individuals to cheat the system to everyone's detriment. The other is the fact that even within those boundaries, there are unpredictable side-effects. In the movie itself, for example, the protagonist loses his appreciation for Beethoven's 9th symphony, and him being a Beethoven fanatic, this causes him a lot of anguish. Consider, Hitler, an individual that most would believe the world would be much better off without. But is that really true? How can you predict what would happen if he did not exist? In fact, I think that there was a great chance that if Hitler would not have started the 2nd world war, we would have had a more deadly world war later on, this time with a liberal use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were created late enough in the war that there was no need for their widespread use, yet the two times they were used, woke the world to the urgency of containing them. So practically, any such change that is made in an individual, need not necessarily be a good change.

Thus it appears that ideally we would have complete free will, but would always make the right decision. But is this free will? If everyone's decisions are constrained by the fact that their decision is the right one, then they longer do not have any free will. So ironically, the ideal of free will requires that people make wrong, and damaging decisions. On the other hand, paradise would be a world where there would be no free will. Which brings me to the question: Is free will really a good thing? Or is it just a wolf in sheep's clothing?


wispsofwhite said...

the thing is i'd say free will is a good thing, cus when supressed, it comes out magnified and all wrong. i honestly do think every individual should be given the freedom to do his own thing, and all we can hope for is that with the freedom comes responisbilty. interesting post. i hope i read it Right.:-)

vRad said...

I agree that if people believe that they dont have free will, then they do get angry. So the impression that they have free will is a must. But should people actually have free will? Isnt it true that we have already sacrificed a lot of our abilities to do things freely? For example, the media is ridiculously influential on an individual's beliefs and thought processes. Religion and dogma encroaches even further on our thinking. I believe that we have already given up our ability to make decisions, and maybe this is not such a bad thing after all.

I have not even touched upon the question of whether human beings by design are incapable of making their own decisions, but are rather parts of a grand illusion.

The_Insomniac said...

you can control the big things, the world decisions, the wars the politics, the currency the stocks, the economy, lie to your nation and create a fake war for oil, and a fake enemy (terrorism)just so they have someone to hate and justify the military budget, but as long as you give them the smallest most useless form of free will (coke or pepsi), they will believe that they have a choice, and wont question their illusion of society, and will honestly believe that they live in the best country in the world with the most freedom....... I believe that its an illusion of choice created by those in power, for those without :)

beloved_witch said...

i agree with what you said about 'free will' and how that debate can never really be conclusive.
I saw the film recently too. There was this other point that struck me.Do you remeber the guys love for music too was killed off by the program? It led me to think...that perhaps music, art, creativity and also violence are born from a common womb in man. His love for base violence and finer crafts like music cannot be distinguished from each other. When you kill somones inherent violence, you also kill off their power to appreciate finer stuff.
Great movie, wasnt it?