The central ethical dilemma of the 1988 film The Rain Man concerns the proper treatment to be afforded to Raymond, an autistic man who is capable of performing immense feats of mathematical calculation but is psychologically attached to predetermined habits and routines, thus being unable to adapt to changing situations around him. Should Raymond be given a chance to live in an open setting, where he can freely interact with the world around him, or should he be confined to an institution?
Raymond’s brother, Charlie, discovers Raymond’s existence only after the death of their father, who had willed the vast majority of his inheritance to Raymond. Charlie is at first immensely spiteful at his father’s decision and removes Raymond from the mental institution, attempting to blackmail the doctor in charge to transfer $1.5 million to Charlie. Charlie is easily frustrated by Raymond’s habits and oddities, as well as his need to always receive precisely the treatment to which he had become accustomed.
However, Charlie later discovers Raymond’s intelligent side during a trip to Las Vegas, where Raymond employs his astoundingly swift processing skills to win $86,000 while gambling. The two brothers subsequently forge an emotional bond, and Charlie is reluctant to return Raymond to the institution. He demonstrates the wish to take care of his brother and points out that Raymond has learned numerous new skills and information during the trip. However, the doctors in charge of Raymond show Charlie that Raymond’s autonomy is greatly impaired; they ask Raymond a series of mutually exclusive questions, to which Raymond merely answers, “Yes.”
Suzanne, Charlie’s girlfriend, thinks that Charlie’s initial treatment of Raymond is too harsh and intolerant. She would like to see Raymond afforded a more flexible and less dominating treatment by Charlie, and is upset that Charlie is using Raymond in order to blackmail the doctor into giving Charlie money. Eventually, however, she becomes pleased by Charlie’s increasing proximity to and genuine care for his brother.
Charlie’s initial “kidnapping” of Raymond was based on Charlie’s perception that Raymond was an easily manipulated disabled person who would comply with Charlie’s scheme to extort money from the doctor. Nevertheless, Raymond proves to have a personality of his own, which at first greatly irritates Charlie, but which Charlie eventually comes to love and refuses to relinquish. The doctor remains firm in his stance not to give the money of Charlie’s father in exchange for Raymond, and Charlie rejects a $250,000 offer in exchange for which he was to have severed all involvement with Raymond. After the doctors demonstrate Raymond’s incapacity to make significant decisions, Charlie reluctantly agrees to allow him to return to the mental institution.
Despite the fact that Charlie and Raymond must separate at the end, Charlie promises to visit frequently, and his influence on Raymond has not been in vain. Raymond and Charlie now share jokes, and Raymond’s range of comfort with respect to the products, services, and activities of daily life has been greatly amplified. Raymond, moreover, had assisted in rendering Charlie’s financial state more secure than it had been in the beginning of the film by winning $86,000 in Las Vegas. Charlie also learns to be more patient and tolerant in his relations with other human beings. He learns to discover the merits and values offered by others rather than merely lashing out at them in frustration.
The decision to return Raymond to the mental institution demonstrated first and foremost the principle of nonmaleficence. The doctors wished to ascertain that Raymond would not pose a danger to his own life by certain irrational and perhaps involuntary reactions, such as banging his head against a window as a result of hearing a smoke alarm. However, this action denied some of Charlie’s attempts at beneficence toward Raymond, as Charlie attempted to provide Raymond shelter, entertainment, and opportunity beyond what Raymond was used to or what was offered at the hospital. Though some of Charlie’s influence remained with Raymond, the doctors’ decision prevented additional improvements to Raymond’s state due to the concern that attempts at these would undermine Raymond’s already delicate condition. The principle of autonomy was also denied, as Raymond was deemed incapable of making his own choices; the doctors demonstrated that he would give contradictory answers to the questions asked of him, and thus argued that their paternalistic supervision over his decision-making would benefit him most.
An alternative decision with respect to Raymond’s fate would have been to allow Raymond to remain with Charlie, but under the supervision of various doctors and psychological counselors. In this way, the doctors could have continued to exercise precautionary measures against Raymond’s self-destructive activities, while Charlie could have continued to broaden Raymond’s comfort zone and eventually render him fit for rudimentary social interaction. This would both benefit Raymond and protect him from harm, fulfilling the principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence.
Moreover, Raymond would, with an expanded worldview, gain greater autonomy in making his own decisions. A freer environment (where constraints are flexible rather than rigid) would enable Raymond to have the greatest possible degree of personal autonomy that he is capable of carrying out. Moreover, the principle of justice requires that Raymond be given the same right to the pursuit of happiness as is afforded to non-autistic persons. This means that absolute paternalism over Raymond should be off-limits to his guardians, who need not regulate every detail of Raymond’s life in order to ensure his security. This decision would be more consistent with the ethics of principlism than the one actually carried out in the film.