You’ve heard of distracted driving? It causes quite a few auto accidents and it’s illegal in a majority of states.
Well, this year, a brave New Jersey state senator, a Democrat, took on the pernicious problem of distracted walking. Faced with the fact that some people can’t tear themselves away from their smartphones long enough to get across a street in safety, Pamela Lampitt of Camden, New Jersey, proposed a law making it a crime to cross a street while texting. Violators would face a fine, and repeat violators up to 15 days in jail. Similar measures, says theWashington Post, have been proposed (though not passed) in Arkansas, Nevada, and New York. This May, a bill on the subject made it out of committee in Hawaii.
That’s right. In several states around the country, one response to people being struck by cars in intersections is to consider preemptively sending some of those prospective accident victims to jail. This would be funny, if it weren’t emblematic of something larger. We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it, and then punish those who break it.
I’ve been teaching an ethics class at the University of San Francisco for years now, and at the start of every semester, I always ask my students this deceptively simple question: What’s your definition of justice?
As you might expect in a classroom where half the students are young people of color, up to a third are first-generation college goers, and maybe a sixth come from outside the United States, the answers vary. For some students, justice means “standing up for the little guy.” For many, it involves some combination of “fairness” and “equality,” which often means treating everyone exactly the same way, regardless of race, gender, or anything else. Others display a more sophisticated understanding. An economics major writes, for instance,
“People are born unequal in genetic potential, financial and environmental stability, racial prejudice, geographic conditions, and nearly every other facet of life imaginable. I believe that the aim of a just society is to enable its citizens to overcome or improve their inherited inequalities.”