The Moral Dilemma of the Cell Phone

I relish the moral dilemmas of daily life, such as whether to use a cell phone at a specific point in time and space. We confront choices that show the dichotomy between what we believe and what we do. That is why I insist on seeing both sides of any argument. We might disapprove of other people distracted by their devices even as we ourselves are spellbound by the same. It is important, in cultivating humility, to realize how easy role reversals are.

Since the mobile became ubiquitous, every time I have ridden the train on the East Coast I have (even in the “quiet” car), against my will, eavesdropped on a confidential conversation that has been broadcast to all of the passengers in the compartment. More than once, I have overheard an attorney discussing matters protected by “privilege,” endangering his client. I also have heard other professionals talking about deals and disputes, but I am especially sensitive about lawyers, since I not only am one but furthermore teach a course on ethics.

In a few instances, I have noticed that the individual enamored of his voice but oblivious to how it projects is carrying an old-school litigation bag with the name of his firm embossed on it. I’ve been tempted to send a note to the managing partner there to mention what I witnessed. I have not done it despite my desire. (I have participated in conference calls while commuting by rail. I always stand in the vestibule. That doesn’t make me superior. It only shows my paranoia about who might be listening.)

Yet today, while running my thirtieth half marathon of the year, I was on the receiving end, literally. At about mile nine, I took an urgent call from the office. A staffer, dedicated and diligent, was working her Saturday morning so we could put out a press release about racist political propaganda, and she needed input on the message. A young lady who was passing me — we had alternated who was in the lead up and down the hills of the scenic route outside Washington, D.C.— exclaimed, “What the f**?! Are you f***ing on the phone? That is so f***king rude!” She then ratted me out to the volunteer at the next water station, who in turn admonished me to step off the trail if I was going to use my phone (I had obeyed the instructions not to employ earbuds). In my defense, we had been crossing a field, not on the technical single track section, when I committed the offense.

If I had not been surprised by her enthusiastic tone, I might have suggested that it also was rude to resort to obscenity with strangers. Even if I had the presence of mind to respond, however, I likely would have hesitated for the same reason I do not report an errant lawyer to his superiors. I belong to the category of people who do not accost strangers. I have reckoned it not worth the risks. There is no agreeable means to do someone the favor of explaining you have become aware, suddenly and involuntarily, of their private details due to their public announcement.

I have no doubt that observers would offer different opinions about both of these situations. Perhaps they would distinguish between them, whether sympathetically to me or not. I’d argue the lawyer on the phone is worse due to the disclosure of secrets, but I could criticize myself too for disturbing a reasonable expectation of tranquility in the countryside. Regardless, officials are regulating our interactions with these machines smarter than we are, because we cannot do so on our own. The city of Honolulu, for example, has banned walking and texting. I’ll predict that as computers start to drive cars for us, it will free us to interface with other artificial intelligences rather than communicate with other human beings.

For myself, I begrudge nobody who wishes for relationships more real than virtual. I regret that as the meaning in our lives appears artificially, we are losing our capacity to socialize organically. We are alone with our phones.

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