Discussion Case: Corneas in the Congo

Sometimes leaders find themselves in a position of choosing between one’s personal morality and one’s ethical duty to an organization. Is what seems to be the obvious right choice always what is actually best for an organization? How can helping people actually be the wrong thing to do? For example: Is the greatest good to provide eyesight to those who have lost it and in the process wind up losing a truck and medical supplies, or is the greatest good to protect an organization from possible scandal if the word gets out that corneas were taken from Chinese prisoners? You will consider questions like these and more in this discussion.

First, review the case, Corneas in the Congo, in the following excerpt from, The Ethics of Leadership (Ciulla, 2003, p. 14):

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You are the head of a small aid agency in the Congo. The mission of your agency is to provide health services for refugees who have fled the various civil wars in the region. In recent years you have worked with a number of nongovernmental organization agencies, such as C.A.R.E., Doctors Without Borders, and the Christian Children’s Fund. Your agency focuses on giving intensive help to small communities. You are now working in a camp of fifty people. Because of a peculiar parasite in the water that destroys the cornea of the eye, ten people in the camp have gone blind; half of them are children. Except for their inability to see, their health is reasonably good, given the conditions of the camp.

You contact Doctors Without Borders and they tell you that they will have two ophthalmologists in the area next week, but that the only thing they can do for the people who have gone blind is to give them cornea transplants. They could do the operations, but they said it was impossible to get corneas for transplant in Africa.

A few days later, the area director of Doctors Without Borders calls and tells you that a Chinese aid agency has twenty corneas and would be willing to exchange them for a truck and ten cases of medical supplies. This strikes you as odd so you ask, “Where did they get the corneas?” She then tells you that the corneas were donated to the Chinese aid agency by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. He bought them from a middle man who buys body parts for transplant from prisons. The prisons carefully execute criminals and then take out livers and corneas for resale. Evidently, corrupt prison wardens make huge profits from this practice. This makes them very liberal with executions, especially of political prisoners.

You tell the director that the origin of these Chinese corneas makes you uncomfortable. The director says, “We have no problem with using them. If you don’t want them, I’ll give them to someone else. There are too many people in need here.” She says, “You have one day to decide. Tomorrow I have to radio the plane in Kinshasa and tell it where to go next.”

Ciulla, J. B. (2003). The ethics of leadership. South Melbourne, Australia; Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN: 9780155063174.

For your initial post in the discussion board, address the following:

  1. Is it wrong to take corneas from Chinese prisoners? Why or why not? Describe what principles are important to you in making this decision.
  2. As the case suggests, imagine you are a leader in this situation, what are your duties and who are the stakeholders in the case?
  3. What are the long-term ramifications of your decision?
  4. Does your “gut feeling” about this case differ from what you think is right? If so, which would be your guide?

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