Hotel Rwanda, Kant, and Moral Agency

Sara Bizarro
Oct 15 · 5 min read

The film Hotel Rwanda depicts the events that happened during the Rwandan genocide. Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a manager of a Belgian-owned hotel in Rwanda. He is married to Tatian, played by Sophie Okonedo, and they have three children. Paul is a Hutu, while Tatiana is a Tutsi.

The conflict that happened during the Rwandan genocide was between Hutus and Tutsis. During the Belgian rule in Rwanda (it was a Belgian colony from 1922 to 1962), the Tutsis were given positions of power because of their lighter skin color, even though they were a minority in the country. Over time, the resentment felt by the Hutus grew and it escalated in the real events of 1994 when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutus.

In the film, Paul is faced with the violence in his country and hosts many Tutsi refugees in the hotel he manages and where the UN is also based. This film is incredible at many levels, I think it can change people’s hearts and minds regarding the plight of refugees and what obligations the world has when something like this happens. If you have not seen it, I would recommend you see it as soon as possible and then return to read the rest of this article. You won’t regret it.

There is a lot to say regarding this film, but I will focus on one particular aspect that I think represents a very important part of Kantian ethics. Immanuel Kant was an 18th-century philosopher. His ethical theory is well known. He thought ethics was a sort of logical discipline whereby we can figure out the moral law by a specific type of “thought experiment”. He thought that any action that is morally wrong would lead to a contradiction. For example, if you are considering whether you should lie in a particular situation you need to consider the following: if everyone lied whenever it was convenient for them, people would not know if anyone is telling the truth or lying which would lead to the uselessness of lying, since you only lie when you think people will believe you, if no one believes you anyway, lying as a strategy collapses. If you want to know what is required by the “moral law, ” you just need to do this exercise in “your head” and you will come up with certain maxims. These maxims would be “categorical” — it’s the famous “categorical imperative”, you need to follow it no matter what.

Once you figure out what the “categorical imperative” is, and you do have to figure this out for yourself, you should act according to it from duty. Kant stresses this — if we act well simply by inclination (say because we are nice by nature), sometimes we will do the right thing, and sometimes we will not. Acting from duty after having figured out the moral laws for ourselves would give a consistent result and will be a better guide to action than simply our nature or our “character”.

There is another aspect of Kantian ethics that is also very well know — he claimed that people should never be used as means, but should always be considered as ends in themselves. Using a person “as a means” for Kant is usually either tricking or coercing that person. When we trick or coerce a person, this is morally bad because we are not allowing them to think through the moral maxims and to make the decisions for themselves, we are robbing them of their moral agency. Since “moral agency” is a core aspect of humanity, this is simply wrong for Kant.

The movie Hotel Rwanda exemplifies Kantian ethics in several ways. In the beginning, Paul is simply a nice person. He is preoccupied with saving his family and does not act to save his neighbors or help others. As the situation progresses, he improvises and does the best he can. He has doubts about what he should do, his wife tells him he is “a good man” several times, but just being a good man is not helpful. He only reaches his moral maturity when he realizes he should try to help everyone, then he starts acting from duty, rather than from impulse.

However, in order to fulfill his higher responsibility towards humanity, he decides to trick his wife. He pretends he is going to leave the hotel with her and her children, puts them on a truck, and when the bus is leaving, he stays behind. He is trying to act from duty, but he forgets the other rule: treat others always as an end in themselves and never as a means. By tricking his wife, he is not allowing her to make her own moral choice. He thinks he knows what the right thing to do is, and he forgets that his wife is also a moral agent.

It turns out that the truck Paul puts her wife in is not able to reach the airport and returns to the hotel. She throws their wedding ring on the ground and she says, “You left me. Take this, I don’t want it. You said you’d never leave me and you left me. You are a liar!” By lying to her, Paul tricked her, he did not treat her as an end, he did not treat her as a moral agent. The conversation that follows between them really illustrates the Kantian maxims to a tee:

Paul: I wanted you to be safe, all of you.

Tatiana: That was not your decision to make. We make our decisions together. That was our promise.

Paul: You’re right. I knew that the minute the truck pulled away, I’m sorry.

These are all Kantian themes: lying, breaking promises, tricking and coercing all have one thing in common — they rob others from their own moral agency — therefore, according to Kant, they are inherently wrong. This story between Paul and Tatiana is a perfect illustration of Kantian ethics because of this.

Paul and Tatiana now live in Belgium with their children and their adopted nieces. They made it out of Rwanda. This movie is a must-see for many reasons beyond Kantian ethics, but it can also be useful to understand it.

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