Can gambling be ethical?

Gambling is one of those things you just kind of grow up understanding is wrong. Maybe it comes from the degree to which Judeo-Christian ideas have been absorbed into our culture, but we use terms like “Sin City” to describe places where gambling occurs on a large scale, even though it turns out that the Bible has nothing to say against the practice. Setting aside religiously motivated argumentation, is there really any reason to conclude that gambling is an inherently morally bad behavior?

I don’t see anything obviously wrong with gambling, the way that I do with lying, stealing, or physically harming another person. People have the right to spend their hard-earned cash on all sorts of things that are out there for sale, just because they feel like it. If the price of a Britney Spears concert ticket, an anchovy pizza, or a hang-glider rental is worth it to you for the enjoyment value you’d get out of it, it’s your prerogative to pay that price. Just because I might personally find those things unpleasant, distasteful, and/or excessively risky doesn’t make those purchases immoral. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which adjectives might apply to which purchases.)

It seems to me that each of us is morally permitted to do what we like, in cases where no harms (or, no effects at all) would be incurred by others. Essentially, the way to make a decision about whether it is a good idea for you to gamble is to consider the practical implications of your doing so. If you think the expected value of the payout (often, a loss) is a fair price for the entertainment value you would get — in other words, you have good reason to not anticipate losing an amount of money you cannot afford — it’s fine.

It’s not necessarily true that gambling has zero potential to harm others. Many people have family members who are to some degree financially dependent on them, or at least whose financial well-being is tied up in theirs. If one of these people became suddenly broke, or even just much worse off than anticipated, it would cause harm. Therefore, they owe it to their dependents to be especially careful not to gamble away their money. A two-dollar scratch-off ticket is almost certainly affordable and morally permissible. A high-stakes poker game in which you might end up throwing your house deed into the pot, almost certainly not.

That brings me to another important consideration: how you are likely to behave while gambling. Gambling addiction is a real and serious problem which could raise the potential cost of gambling far beyond what you might anticipate. Unlike addiction to drugs, though, gambling addiction doesn’t lock you in to behaviors that make you so generally irrational and detached from reality. It just makes you commit to poor financial decisions. The risks of excessive gambling should shift your cost-benefit calculation, especially if you know you are predisposed to addictions, and even more so if you have others depending on you financially as well.

The only other issue I see playing into the choice of whether or not to gamble has to do with legality concerns. Any kind of dealings with organized crime, obviously, are a terrible idea not only because of the precedent set through your disrespect for the law but also because the bets you lost would go to fund more crime which would certainly harm others in an immediate and concrete way. Besides that rather extreme set of cases, I’d add that I don’t see any sort of fundamental right to purchase whatever product you feel like purchasing, and a local government is within its authority in forbidding gambling establishments in its jurisdiction if it determines that the social cost of permitting them is too high. If it were necessary to gamble legally and I wanted to do so, I would travel to a legal casino or betting parlor rather than try to do so “underground.” (Interestingly, as a sidenote — and I didn’t know this until I started doing some background research for this post — it seems that private poker games among friends are probably legal in most US states, or at least very unlikely to be lead to prosecution, provided that they are low enough stakes and the host doesn’t make an automatic profit off the game in any way. Don’t take this as legal advice, of course! Check your own local laws.)

Are you a gambler? What goes into your moral and practical considerations if and when you do so, or when you choose not to?

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  1. The evangelical Christian attitude toward gambling used to be a lot more hard bitten. No card playing whatsoever, even when money isn’t being exchanged. Of course, Catholics have typically been a bit more liberal, with their propensity toward bingo playing and holding raffles.

    I think you’re right – there’s inherantly wrong with gambling…in moderation. Just like drinking, it’s a risky activity, that some people can’t handle without going off the deep end with it.

    Good discussion!

  2. Patrick

     /  June 30, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I am not a gambler. I rather suspect that the reason there’s moral objection to gambling is a sort of evolved response to the fact that gambling is, in practice, harmful to most people. It is an activity that functions by irregular reward schemes, with the use of the law of high numbers to cover up the long term likelihood that you will lose money to the house. Gambling as an institution is literally designed to use the design flaws of the human brain against us, and so I’m not surprised that moral opposition, our primary means of behavior modification, is used to oppose it.

  3. gambling is not a sin in the bible, go ahead and look it up…it’s a product of tradition.

    In fact casting lots which is form of gambling in the bible, was used to determine the 12th apostle mathias Acts 1:26..check it out

  1. “Gambling: The sure way of getting nothing for something.” – Ned's Diary

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