Friday, March 16, 2007
The actions of Justin Quayle, Ralph Fiennes’ character in Reynaldo Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener, can be assessed in the light of Emmanuel Levinas’ and Paul Ricoeur’ ethics and morality.
Initially, Justin wanted to function no more than as a tame British diplomat to the impoverished African country Kenya, with gardening as his constant pastime (hence, the film’s title; on a literary level, the title alludes to Justin's constant digging for truth). He was adamant at acting on the sympathy he felt for the poor people, a contrast of his wife, Tessa, who was an activist out to rectify the injustices incurred against the discriminated populace. He was even against his wife’s investigations on certain drugs, on the trade of which British and pharmaceutical officials have commercial and diplomatic interests. When his wife had a miscarriage and just left the hospital, he did not stop the car to give a ride to a native boy he and his wife had seen in the clinic, dismissing Tessa’s plea that they can help three people out of a million who need so. The aforementioned incidents show that he did not see his relation with the other feasible. He has yet to be responsible for the other and, therefore, not enough of a human to do good.
Justin’s change of heart started after burying his murdered wife, when he felt that a new drug produced by ThreeBees had to do with Tessa’s death. He began his own inquiry by trying to find in the hospital the records of the dead HIV-positive teenage girl. While he himself saw her lying in the hospital bed, the hospital did not have any record about the girl. He journeyed to the Kenyan countryside in search of her brother, the boy he refused to give a ride to, and located him in a queue for medical treatment sponsored by ThreeBees. Seeing that the boy’s required medical card bore the imprint “I.C. (informed consent),” Justin interrogated the officials why subject the natives to a new drug test without informing them well and whether they like or not.
With his mounting concern for the medically endangered Kenyans, Justin was behaving ethically by relating well with his others. As an apathetic diplomat, he just knew the plight of the Kenyans, but this knowledge was all that related him to them. He could never understand them because he was numb to their beings. When his wife permanently became separated from his life due to her death, he could no longer approach the closest thing to his knowledge of her because he could not embrace her. Nonetheless, by putting others first through the concern for their health and welfare, he was leading the way to knowing his others. He was beginning to understand them and to be responsible for them. He might have lost his most significant other, but in the face of others, he could be good now that he has closer encounters with them.
Still with this change, Justin went beyond being a diplomat to Otherwise: in the service of ethics, he continued his query even beyond the code of moral conduct: he assumed identities to help uncover the malpractices of certain institutions involved in the production of a tuberculosis drug with fatal side effects. One time, he pretended to be someone when he went to Germany to meet and get information on Dypraxa from Birgit, a member of the group Hippo which had been contacting Tessa. In another instance, he posed as a freelance journalist in order to get on a relief plane en route to a refugee camp in southern Sudan. Yes, he should have not acted as someone else he was not, but ethics dictated that he reach beyond a reduced symmetrical relationship with his encounters with the others. He was not just in Africa for a diplomatic mission; he was there to form human relationship with its residents. The African natives were being turned into human guinea pigs via a potentially genocidal drug and in what resembles an understanding of his wife’s cause, he risked his life by meddling into the anomalous drug trials in Kenya. His exterior, the other is at risk, and in an understanding of this plight, willingly risks himself, too.
The most salient point of transformation in Justin was during the flight away from southern Sudan with the inventor of the lethal TB drug, when a native child was refused from getting aboard the plane whose passengers were limited to volunteer workers only. He protested that the child should be allowed to join the escape, but the pilot denied his help. He even went morally overboard by trying to bribe the pilot into fetching the child, but the latter stood his ground until the child fled and the plane took off. This episode was the point wherein Justin felt most responsible for the other: he might not be able to help the millions waiting to be rescued, but that only child could have been helped and that would have made a difference. Just one manifestation of the good person in him and he would be human already, only to be denied. All the same, Justin followed what his radically-altered personal convictions summoned him: to acknowledge the other for him to come close to understanding the other.
Justin’s actions also fit Ricoeur’s idea of ethics. He harbored the ethical intentions of aiming at the “good life” with and for Kenyans, in Kenya’s government as well as in its society, hoping justice might still be served in these institutions. He must have thought that the good life composed of doing his diplomatic job precisely and conducting gardening in his free time; he realized that there was more to that when his life, lacking the wife who had been his inspiration and love, aimed to act finally on the compassion he felt for the local people. Only when he achieved self-esteem would he feel ethical. This he showed through the actions following the exposure of the death-causing drug. He felt that he was more valuable when his actions were prescribed by his conscience rather than by the norm. When he argued that he and his fellow plane passengers could have helped one child, he felt he was more ethically obligated to do that than the moral obligation of saving them all from the raided village.
Justin’s actions were influenced by that which lacked in him: his wife who was a paragon of goodness when still alive and showing active concern for others. That goodness was the one thing absent in Justin, hence the change he underwent in aiming to gain friends, so to speak, by reaching to the other. Being able to save Kenyan lives by exposing the ills of the TB drug with side effects was Justin’s own aim at the good life: there was this void to fill left vacant by the late wife; solicitude or genuine concern for others blossomed right at this gap, so he went to the extremes—crossing countries and identities—in order to give others the friendship he fell short of extending to his wife.
Since morality was a limited form of ethics, Justin practiced the aim of his personal conduct. He was single-handed in trying to stop the drug testing on Africans, and even when he incurred the ire of the drug benefactors who followed what the norms dictated, he defied the norms since it does not respect the rights to life of the Kenyans. He did not feel obliged to go by the Kenyan government’s and the drug manufacturer’s discrepancies; the constraints of not being able to do what one must ethically do was graver in him, so he continued to champion the cause of his wife. Later, by the lake where his wife’s mangled corpse was found, he realizes that he fully understood Tessa. In which case, Justin has approximated the other at the closest degree possible.