Moral Enhancement and Moral Perfection in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”

This talk will be presented at the conference “From human to posthuman? Ethical Inquiries regarding the radical transformation of human beings into different kinds of beings.” organised by Johann Roduit, Collegium Helveticum, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

ABSTRACT: Standard methods of moral improvement such as childhood rearing practices, moral education, and legal punishment are dreadfully inadequate. For one thing, they are slow, effortful, and costly. For another, whatever hard-won moral progress one generation makes can only be inherited by the next generation through the use of these same lousy methods. Finally, to make matters even worse, some people seem either unwilling to use, or incapable of being reached by, any of these methods. But what if science and technology could change all this? For instance, if direct brain interventions could help us to overcome our inbuilt human biases and limitations, or enable those who just can’t see what’s wrong with hurting others to finally get it? Should we embrace such technologically-mediated moral change? Might it eventually even lead humans to moral perfection — to genuine moral enlightenment that would otherwise remain beyond our technologically-unmediated reach?

In Stanley Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange”, in exchange for release from prison, an unrepenting hyper-violent criminal offender named Alex agrees to submit himself to moral re-programmming through a new high-tech procedure of this sort. However, a short while before Alex undergoes the procedure, the prison chaplain offers him the following two reflections. First, lamenting Alex’s impending loss of freedom, he ponders “Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” Second, acknowledging the value of Alex’s choice to surrender his freedom to act badly, he also notes “And yet, in a sense, in choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen to be good.”

This talk will make two points. Firstly, it will strive to demonstrate that the prison chaplain’s two reflections on technologically-facilitated moral improvement express the respective views of John Harris and Tom Douglas in the recent debate about biomedical moral enhancement. Secondly, it will also argue that although both views capture an intuitively plausible conception of moral improvement/enhancement, the prison chaplain’s initial refections (which echo throughout Harris’s arguments) have paramount pragmatic and ethical significance. This significance becomes especially clear when we reflect on the potential for different kinds of technologically-facilitated moral improvements to, in the long term, yield genuine moral progress and eventually even moral perfection.

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