Letter to the Editor: “Using Your Phone in Class is Immoral”

Most of you don’t know me beyond “that bald guy in Mr. Jameson’s old room.” Some of you know me as your English 10 or Approaches to Learning teacher. A handful of you know me as that teacher that is obsessed with cellphone use in class. And a few of you don’t like me very much because I’ve taken your phone from you.
Putting aside my personal sadness caused by your seemingly-serious emotional attachment to your phones, I’d like to explain why using your cellphone in class when you are supposed to be focused on something else is not really about rights or freedom. I’d like to help you understand why using your cellphone in class as a distraction from learning makes you immoral.
That’s right. Using your cellphone in class when it’s not explicitly a part of instruction isn’t just frustrating or annoying or immature. It is fundamentally, ethically, morally wrong.
When we talk morality, we’re talking Ethics, the study of what is right and wrong. Within Ethics, there are basically two schools of thought.
One is Immanuel Kant’s “duty ethics,” wherein what is right and wrong is judged based solely on our duties and obligations. If we fulfill our duties, then we are right. If we don’t fulfill our duties, then we are wrong.
How do we figure out our duties? Kant basically says that we must appeal to reason and ask, “If everyone did that, what would happen?” If the end result of generalizing the action is good, then the action itself is our duty. If generalizing the action would cause mass chaos or pain or evil, then the action is not our duty.
So the question is, “What if everyone used their cellphone in class?” Well, then nothing would be learned. No classroom goals would be accomplished. You would not learn how to be better at each subject.
“But who says that learning is our duty?” For one, the two MCPS student handbooks (the Rights and Responsibilities and the Code of Conduct) say so. But use Kant’s question to look at writing as an example: “What if everyone learned how to write better?” Would the world be better or worse? The answer is clear. Learning is reasonably your duty.
“But what about my rights? You can’t just take stuff from me.” Completely valid. However, for every right, there is an equal duty. If your action prevents you from fulfilling your duty, then it is my trusted job to help you fulfill your duty, which may infringe on your rights. Do your duty, maintain your rights. Shirk your duty, experience the consequences.
Okay, so Kant’s “duty ethics” prove that using your phone in class is immoral. What about the Utilitarian theory of Ethics? The theory that says what is right is what increases happiness the most?
You might say that using your cellphone in class makes you happy; therefore, using your cellphone is ethical and moral.
However, could we argue that there are different types of pleasures? The pleasure of feeling a family member’s love is different than the pleasure of seeing a Vine of someone’s eyebrows on fleek. The pleasure derived from understanding the tragedy of Hamlet is different than the pleasure of listening to Chief Keef’s album for the seventy-forth time.
The difference is between fulfilling pleasures and empty pleasures. Fulfilling pleasures develop our potential as humans. Fulfilling pleasures help us flourish as a race. Empty pleasures don’t. A life devoted to empty pleasures is unworthy of a human being.
Plus, consider the residual unhappiness that using your cellphone in class might cause. Your distracted behavior could have untold negative consequences on your future. Education is universally recognized as the means towards success, health, and happiness in life. And success, health, and happiness far outweigh the pleasure derived from cellphone use. To give up success, health, and happiness in order to Snapchat is, therefore, immoral under Utilitarian theory.
To summarize thus far, both major schools of Ethics–Duty and Utilitarian–prove that using your cellphone in class is immoral. But what about a compromise between the two theories?
The compromise tells us to do your duty unless a great amount of pain and suffering can be avoided by not doing your duty. Who can prove to me that a great amount of pain and suffering can be avoided by using your cellphone in class?
The next time I come by your desk and ask for your cellphone, don’t think of it as a violation of your rights. Think of it as me helping you to become a better, morally sound member of the human race, a member who could maybe–just maybe–add something to the craziness we call humanity.