Classical conditioning and a clockwork orange

            Classical Conditioning and A Clockwork Orange

            Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, remains as controversial today as it was when it was first released over 35 years ago. While it is true that the shocking violence present within the film is unnerving, the psychological implications present in the film are as equally unnerving.

            If there was anything that all human beings worship, it would be free will. No individual wishes to be subjugated by another human being. As such, the images in the film that depict the anti-hero, Alex, as a pawn in a huge government experiment of eliminating a person’s free will for the betterment of society remains a psychologically jarring visual image. In fact, it is so jarring the audience starts to become sympathetic with Alex, despite the fact that he is a violent and brutal criminal.

            To a great degree, the film presents a twisted variant on the “classical conditioning” that is often described in psychological studies. What classical conditioning entails is behavioral learning, a concept that was first expounded upon by Ivan Pavlov when he taught his dog to expect food whenever a bell rang. The side effect of this experiment was the fact that the dog ALWAYS expected food when a bell rang and could no longer associate bell ringing with anything else. If anything, this demonstrates that while there are huge positives that can be arrived at from classical conditioning learning, there are also problematic situations that can derive from classical conditioning. This is most typified in the film because the character of Alex becomes a

mind slave after a classic conditioning experiment goes wrong. In fact, while not

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mentioned in the movie, the title A Clockwork Orange refers to an inorganic, organic being. (Hence, the reference describes a mix of an inorganic machine, a clock, and a living, organic entity, an orange.)

            What occurs with Alex is essentially a classical conditioning experiment designed to make him less violent. Since the character of Alex is one of a sociopath, he is attracted to things that are violent and he derives his pleasure from such acts. Hence, he commits crimes of robbery, battery and rape for his own amusement. The character is such a complete sociopath he rapes a man’s wife in front of him as a gesture of displaying his ability to have power over others.

            In order to escape the doldrums of prison (note: in the novel his motivation is to avoid be gang raped by fellow inmates again), Alex volunteers for a controversial psychological experiment that will “cure” him of his violent tendencies.

            What the experiment entails is bombarding Alex with images of ultra-violent behavior to such a degree, that he will develop a nauseas gag reflex to any activity that is violent. The purpose of this is to create a creature that can not participate in violent behavior and, hence, be cured of such tendencies.

            The classic conditioning response is in effect and Alex must avoid all contact with violent behavior. While this may seem like a positive step forward since it has effectively forced a rapist-murderer from further participation in such cruel exploits, it has also created the inorganic, organic human. In other words, Alex has lost his free will and is

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not longer functioning like a true human being. This is the great, ethical dilemma of the classical conditioning experiment that is performed in the film.

            For example, Alex loses his ability to defend himself when he is attacked by former victims and even former friends. While there will be a gut instinctive reaction to say that Alex deserves such treatment, to make such a trite statement completely misses the much greater ethical dilemma that is present within the film.

            That ethical dilemma exists in the form of the following question: “If classical conditioning techniques remove free will and turn a human into a machine that can only respond with predetermined responses to specific stimuli, does the ends justify the means?” There is no single answer to this question, although it is clear that the intention of the filmmaker is to show that such experimentation is as equally immoral as Alex’s actions and that the two proverbial wrongs do not make a right, the fact of the matter is that different individuals will have different ethical judgments on the experiments that were performed on poor Alex.

            As such, the film does a fine job present a model of behavioral, classical conditioning learning as a form of rehabilitative therapy, but it is difficult to say that the film serves its purpose of presenting the moral and ethical dilemmas that exist within the framework of such an experiment. Because of this, the audience is left to make up their own mind as to whether or not the ends justify the means. Perhaps, ultimately, moral ambiguity may be the purpose of Kubrick after all, considering that the very open ended, ending of the film leaves us with more questions than answers.


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