The film The Constant Gardener is a political thriller (“The Constant Gardener,” 2005); the story is about a married couple who witness dramatically unethical human experimentation in Africa and face a series of difficult ethical decisions. The main character, Justin Quayle, is a British diplomat sent to Kenya to support a humanitarian aid campaign, and he brings his wife Tessa with him; she is an activist and a much more militant opponent of injustice than her diplomatic husband is.
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Tessa collects evidence about unethical and unofficial drug experiments in Kenya and tries to pass her report on to the authorities, but her report is suppressed, and she receives threats and warnings to stop her investigation. Tessa is later brutally killed, and Justin tries to find out what happened to her; in his attempts, he obtains confirmations of the unethical and illegal activities carried out in Kenya and other African countries against the local population, and he pursues exposing the crimes to avenge his wife’s murder and stop the cruel experiments.
Several ethical issues are involved in the story. First of all, there is the issue of human experimentation; according to the General Assembly of the World Medical Association (2014), such experimentation cannot be carried out before obtaining the informed consent of the participants, and this is a universally recognised principle in research.
However, in the film, many people on different levels (from decision-makers in the United Kingdom to local doctors in Kenya) are involved in administering medications that have not been properly tested, and subjects have not provided their informed consent. Moreover, mortality cases are intentionally concealed through destroying records and burying victims in mass graves.
Another important issue is diplomatic and humanitarian ethics. Crane and Matten (2010) suggest that businesses should contribute to the well-being of those communities in which they operate (e.g., in the form of corporate social responsibility activities), but the assistance they provide may be indirect (investing in the infrastructure or conducting social programs) instead of direct (helping certain individuals). Similarly, the members of the diplomatic mission, including Justin and Tessa, are not supposed to engage directly in the lives of local people in Kenya.
At some point, the two drive pass a woman who is walking down the street with her newly born grandchild and her young son, and Tessa asks Justin to give them a ride because she knows they will have to travel a distance of 40 km on foot. Justin refuses to help them and argues that becoming personally involved is something mission members are not supposed to do, and there are thousands of people who need help (this is why there are all those missions working in the country). Tessa replies, “Yeah, but these are three people that we can help!” (Williams & Meirelles, 2005). However, the couple drives away without helping them.
Justin finds himself facing the same ethical dilemma further in the plot. He escapes a village that is attacked by tribesmen who burn houses and kidnap people, so he has to get on a plane, and he wants to take a little girl named Abuk with him. However, the pilot refuses to take the girl because he is only entitled to evacuate aid workers. He uses the same argument Justin used earlier, as he says, “There are thousands of them out there. I can’t make an exception,” and Justin replies, “Yes, but this is one we can help!” (Williams & Meirelles, 2005). Feeling that she is causing trouble, Abuk runs away, and the plane leaves without her.
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Hartman, DesJardins, and MacDonald (2014) suggest that the process of ethical decision-making involves considering all the possible consequences of all available actions in a given situation, and one of the strategies is to choose the option that will cause less harm than other options. It is important to acknowledge that ethical dilemmas do not have universally applicable solutions or universally right decisions. What Justin and Tessa faced were ethical dilemmas, but it can be argued that human experimentation discussed above involved a dilemma, too.
On the one hand, it is wrong to conduct such experiments, but on the other hand, people who were conducting the experiments knew that there was a tuberculosis epidemic coming, and they needed to invent and test a drug against it before the epidemic would break. Therefore, they might argue that there were sacrificing lives for the sake of saving more lives in the nearest future. Also, one of the proponents of the experimentation claims that the experiments were conducted in populations in which the death rate was already high and says, “We’re not killing people who wouldn’t be dead otherwise” (Williams & Meirelles, 2005).
It should not be overlooked, however, that the pharmaceutical company that administers the experimentation resorted to hidden and unethical testing because it wanted to be the first one to invent the drug and did not want to spend time on compliance with ethics because it could otherwise lose billions of dollars.
I think the film is very powerful and emotionally appealing. Not only because it is a personal drama of two people who fall victim to an evil conspiracy of the government and pharmaceutical corporations, but also because larger themes of ethics, life in developing countries, and rights to safety and proper health care are raised. Upon watching the film, I mostly feel compassion toward people who receive such poor health care services, and I also feel indignation at the pharmaceutical corporations who experiment on those people; sadly, such experiments may not be fully fictional.
The main impact that the film had on me was making me think about personal responsibility and ethics. I had never before speculated on the ethical dilemma in which a person can refuse to help someone because the person’s goal is to act systematically, and helping a particular individual would mean making an unacceptable exception. Kalshoven, Den Hartog, and De Hoogh (2013) suggest that, in ethical leadership, empathic concern is a crucial element and a major predictor of success.
I think a person who represents a humanitarian mission may have this kind of ethical dilemmas, but frankly, I also think that, if you perceive yourself as an agent of justice, you may have doubts on helping people individually, but if you think that ethics is your personal responsibility and a matter of your conscience only, you should not refuse to help anyone who needs your help and whom you can help. I guess the film has reinforced this belief of mine.
Concerning the main characters, I cannot say I have definitive judgements about their behaviours because the situation is rather complicated. However, what I can say is that Tessa is a strong and courageous woman who fights for what she believes in, genuinely wants to save innocent lives, and copes with pressures and difficult living conditions. Moreover, she is trying to protect her husband by keeping him away from her dangerous investigation.
Justin is a very decent man, too, and he manages to keep his self-control in very difficult situations, which deserves respect. However, I could say that Justin is too soft at times, and even though he risks his life and tries to find the truth his wife was looking for before she was murdered, he is doing it with somewhat lesser passion and lesser criticism toward the people he knows are involved in the conspiracy. Moreover, Justin’s final decision to meet death in the same place where his wife was murdered can be regarded as giving up on his late wife’s ideals and purposes. However, I doubt that he can be blamed given everything he has been through.
The film reflects on the theme of exploitation by suggesting that pharmaceutical corporations conduct experiments in vulnerable African populations. In doing so, the corporations try to escape ethical regulations, under which experimentation would be more expensive, harder to carry out, and would take more time. This is clearly shown in the film; Justin’s colleague, Sandy, confesses to knowing about the conspiracy and explains why the corporations engaged in it.
When subjects (who do not know that they participate in experiments) die, the participants try to hide it, and again, it is easier to do in vulnerable societies in which, as Sandy puts it, “not that anybody’s counting” (Williams & Meirelles, 2005). The themes of businesses exploiting vulnerable people for profit are constantly present in the news; however, due to the lack of evidence, such stories rarely become exposed or cause legal consequences for the perpetrators. If the film is at least partially genuine in terms of depicting the methods of concealing such conspiracies and suppressing evidence, it is not surprising that this type of exploitation is rarely exposed.
It can be argued whether Sandy’s claims about the justification of research he covers up are callous or pragmatic. On the one hand, he appeals to Justin’s patriotism and loyalty and says that, unless the drug that is being tested is put into production, thousands of people in the United Kingdom will lose their jobs. Besides, it can be speculated that many people will die in the upcoming epidemic if the tuberculosis medicine is not improved (and part of improving it is testing).
Indeed, it is pragmatic and justifiable that businesses want to increase their profits, and the corporation that conducts the experiments wants to be the first one to introduce the new drug. And there is nothing wrong about the intention of businesses to minimise costs (e.g., the cost of testing). However, these considerations are not excuses for unethical business operation (Hartman et al., 2014).
Even if the experiment’s administrators’ intention to maximise their profits are disregarded, and it is assumed that they test drugs unethically solely for the purpose of saving more lives in the future, it is still wrong to experiment on uninformed humans, conceal their deaths, and arrange killings of those who try to reveal the truth. Sandy’s pragmatism is cruel and illegal; the conspiracy should be exposed, and the participants should be prosecuted.
However, Justin decides to stop his attempts to expose the conspiracy and goes to the place where his wife was murdered to meet his own death. It is unclear whether Justin thinks that his mission is accomplished because he cannot be sure that the truth will be ultimately revealed. However, the reasons for his arrival to the shore of Lake Turkana may not be fully rational but rather associated with his psychological state.
He finally understood what his wife was trying to protect him from, and he has no place to go because, as he says earlier, “Tessa was my home;” on the shore, before the killers appear, he says (to Tessa whom he pictures) “I think I understand you now. You want me to come home. But I am home” (Williams & Meirelles, 2005). I am not sure if Justin did the right thing. On the one hand, he could live on and help other activists stop the cruel exploitation of vulnerable people in Africa. On the other hand, he was so deeply affected by the loss of his wife and further investigation of what she was doing and how she was trying to protect him, so it is impossible to judge him for the decision to go to the lake.
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Rather than rules, business ethics has principles; in specific real-life situations, principles may conflict, and hard decisions are to be made. In ethical dilemmas, the least harmful and most beneficial decisions should be made, such as Tessa’s and Justin’s intentions to help strangers in whose lives they were not supposed to intervene. However, some ethical decision-making situations are less controversial; testing on uninformed humans is highly unethical, and pursuing larger profits by concealing people’s deaths and arranging the killings of those who try to reveal the truth is absolutely unacceptable for any businesses, even if noble purposed are declared.
The Constant Gardener. (2005). Web.
Crane, A., & Matten D. (2010). Business ethics (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
General Assembly of the World Medical Association. (2014). World medical association declaration of Helsinki: Ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. The Journal of the American College of Dentists, 81(3), 14-18.
Hartman, L. P., DesJardins, J. R., & MacDonald, C. (2014). Business ethics: Decision making for personal integrity & social responsibility (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Kalshoven, K., Den Hartog, D. N., & De Hoogh, A. H. (2013). Ethical leadership and follower helping and courtesy: Moral awareness and empathic concern as moderators. Applied Psychology, 62(2), 211-235.
Williams, S. C. (Producer), & Meirelles, F. (Director). (2005). The constant gardener [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Focus Features.