Issue #13: luck

The ethics of gambling

Comments Off on The ethics of gambling
by New Philosopher on September 14, 2016

Nigel Warburton: What is the moral issue about gambling? Is it about individual freedom, or is there something else going on?
Jonathan Wolff: On the one hand, there are some people who regard gambling with great suspicion, supposing that there is something morally wrong with choosing to spend your time gambling money. There is another line, which says, well, people can spend their money and time however they wish, but nevertheless gambling and particularly some gambling products are potentially very dangerous. Some people do get into trouble with their gambling. Some people become addicted to gambling, and others, while not addicted, spend much more money than they can afford to lose. So there is an argument about freedom and harm. On the one hand, why shouldn’t people do exactly what they want? On the other hand, some people, tragically, will ruin their lives if they spend time gambling.

Let’s deal with the first type of argument against gambling that you mentioned, which is essentially that gambling is a vice, is just wrong, that there is something bad about gambling, whether or not it produces harmful effects.
I think a lot of people have that view tucked away at the back of their mind. A lot of people say or imply that they think gambling’s a bad or worthless thing to do. Then it turns out that they enjoy having the occasional flutter on a horse, or in an office sweepstake, or regularly play the lottery and they don’t even regard it as a form of gambling. So gambling might be something other people do rather than something you do yourself. Nevertheless, it’s rare these days to find many people who come out absolutely opposed to all forms of gambling. Some churches used to until they started to apply for lottery funding and then they had to take a somewhat more nuanced view. But in Islamic doctrine, for example, there is a prohibition against gambling. Now I’m not a scholar of Islamic thought, and I don’t exactly know why this is, but I think it may be related to a view, again that many of us have tucked away at the back of our minds, that it’s wrong to try to get something for nothing, without working for it. If you gamble or lend money at interest, you’re not working for it, and that is morally wrong and you shouldn’t do it.

Do you agree with that line of argument, that there is something just morally wrong with gambling?
No, I don’t agree with that argument. Which is not to say that I never instinctively feel there is something wrong with gambling, but that is not a considered view. We’ve moved in the UK from a view that gambling is a type of inevitable anti-social activity that we’ve got to contain, to something closer to a view that it’s just a normal part of the leisure industry. I think what happens in gambling is that the vast majority of people know they’re going to lose money, but they enjoy the experience of gambling and the hope that they might win. It might simply pass the time, if you are bored. If you’re watching a sporting event, putting on a bet can make the occasion more exciting. And, after all, if you are watching a sporting event you are doing so for the excitement. If the gambling enhances your enjoyment, why is that something that we should be worried about – provided you can afford it? Certainly from a utilitarian point of view, gambling might lose you money but on average gains you utility.

In the sense of happiness, or pleasure?
Yes. It can give you greater pleasure, or happiness, and if it does it’s money well spent, on the utilitarian view. Provided of course that it does remain a pleasure. That is where we slip over into the other argument about harm, rather than the moralistic argument that it’s wrong. I think it’s very important to distinguish these two arguments. The moralist who says gambling is wrong is not asking whether people get pleasure or pain from it, or whether they ruin their lives. They are just saying it’s wrong. It’s actually quite hard to get yourself the frame of mind these days to think that some things are just wrong, independently of their consequences, outside of a religious context. By contrast, the argument about harm is much more common, and we do need to take it seriously because there is no doubt that some people get into very bad harm as a result of their gambling. The serious cases involve people stealing money to feed their gambling habits, or getting into uncontrollable debt. The very worst cases are where families break up, people end up in prison, or even commit suicide. These tragic situations certainly happen from time to time, and are often reported in newspapers, so the general public become very aware that gambling can be associated with very serious harm. And where activities lead to harm, then there’s cause for at least some thought about regulation.

This is a classic example of a conflict between individual freedom – so we’re talking about adults making decisions for themselves, taking risks, with possible bad consequences for them and those around them – versus paternalism – protecting them in a way that only allows them to do something which will be beneficial to them.
I think actually there are two layers to that argument. One is as you’ve set out, freedom versus paternalism, protecting people from themselves. But there’s another layer, which is the more straightforward utilitarian argument. Of people who gamble, 99 per cent of gamblers have no problems and gain at least some pleasure; one per cent of people get into problems and that perhaps one per cent of the one per cent get into very serious, life-changing, problems. The question is whether we should curtail the pleasures of the 99 per cent to avoid the problems of the one per cent or the 0.01 per cent? How should we balance the modest pleasures of the great majority against the serious pains of the small minority?

How would you go about deciding that kind of issue? If the suffering is so intense for the tiny percentage of people who become problem gamblers, wouldn’t that just wipe out significant amounts of pleasure for other people?
What I’m going to say here is a cop-out. From a philosophical point of view, we have identified a really acute problem. To address it, you might say that the pleasures of the gamblers are relatively trivial, while the worst pains are extremely intense. From a utilitarian point of view, it may be even arguable that the intense pains outweigh the pleasures. But even if they don’t, we might very well say that the very serious harms of the worst off, especially deaths, are of a different order, and we therefore should end gambling in order to save lives, given the relative frivolity of the pleasures of gambling. However, from a policy point of view, that is a non-starter, because we can’t actually stop people from gambling. We can make gambling illegal, but as policy makers know and philosophers often forget, making something illegal isn’t a way of stopping it happening. Very often making something illegal actually makes it more dangerous because it becomes unregulated. People are also liable to blackmail because they are engaging in criminal activity. Think what happened when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. No country has ever managed to stop gambling. They’ve attempted to restrict it significantly but not always with intended results. In the UK, gambling was illegal until the 1950s except on dog and horse tracks. Almost all off-track betting was illegal. But if you read novels from the 1940s and the 1950s, there’s this mysterious character called the ‘bookie’s runner’ who goes around town taking illegal bets. In films and novels he was often being chased by the police over garden fences. One study in Salford, near Manchester, claimed that up to 25 per cent of the population were gambling illegally every week. This brought the law into disrepute. The police and courts couldn’t cope, and the police were being corrupted because there was a lot of cash around, and they were being paid off to turn a blind eye. It turned out, in this country, to be impossible to enforce a ban on off-track gambling, and attempting to do so caused a lot of harm.

So far, we’ve been discussing gambling from the point of view of the gambler and from a government legislating against or regulating gambling. But there must be other ways in which you can be involved in gambling, for instance, as a casino owner, or possibly as somebody advertising gambling.
I think that’s absolutely right. There are at least three different questions we need to focus on. One is a question about the morality of gambling. Is gambling wrong? Second, is it wrong to profit from gambling? Even if gambling is acceptable as an activity it doesn’t mean other people should be able to make money from it. Finally, there’s a question about whether the advertising or promotion of gambling should be allowed. Defenders of gambling say that gambling is an ordinary leisure activity, therefore we should be able to advertise it like any other activity, like advertising a sports centre or a football match. It’s interesting the way in which different countries have dealt with these different questions. In some countries gambling is illegal, often for religious reasons. In many other countries, such as the United States, most countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, gambling is legal though heavily regulated. But there’s another question about who should be able to profit from gambling. Many countries have taken the view that private individuals should not be able to profit from gambling. In Sweden and France, I believe, gambling is a nationalised industry. If anyone is going to profit from gambling, it should be the government. Private individuals or companies should not be able to profit.

By profit you mean, not profit by winning a bet, but profit by running the actual game where the bet takes place?
That’s right. One idea is that the government should own any establishment in which gambling takes place. If there are profits being made, they should go to the taxpayers as a whole, rather than to a private firm. This is quite a neat idea. We can’t stop people gambling for if we make it illegal they’ll just do it in their own homes, or in unlicensed premises, where they might be cheated or robbed, so we may as well make it public and safe. But we should have the citizenry as a whole profiting from it, rather than private companies. In the UK, we didn’t go down that line. We did for a while have the Tote, which was a nationalised industry. That’s now been sold off. And we do have the National Lottery. But in the UK we have never pursued the idea that all gambling should be run by the state. However, for a long time we took the view that gambling should not be promoted through advertising. Things have changed now. If you watch TV, if you watch sport on the cable channels, virtually every advertisement is for a gambling company. Twenty years ago that would not have been permitted.

Isn’t there another question, a philosophical question, behind all this: shouldn’t we be free to take risks? Shouldn’t we be free to climb mountains, to play dangerous sports, to go aqualung swimming, to run a marathon when we’re 60? Can’t we take these risks?
You’ve really put your finger on the central question here. We go back to the idea of individual freedom to take risks versus paternalism, the protection of individuals from the consequences of their own behaviour. It’s tempting to think that, as John Stuart Mill says, you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm other people. For that reason, we ought to just allow people to take whatever risks and if they turn out to damage their lives as a result, that is tragic but it’s none of the government’s business. However, I was very interested to find a letter that the young John Stuart Mill had written to The Lancet magazine, a medical magazine, in the first year that The Lancet was published. It was an anonymous letter that scholars have traced back to him. Mill refers to a notorious murder case, one for which there was a wax works in Madame Tussaud’s until about 10-15 years ago, of two people who had got into a fight over gambling and one murdered the other. The young John Stuart Mill argues against gambling on the grounds that nothing corrupts the character faster than gambling. Now of course he developed his views about liberty as he got older, but the young Mill couldn’t resist the idea that government has a duty to protect people against themselves. If we think about public health, we realise that in practice we expect governments to restrict our liberty in some ways, for example by banning some food additives. But, there are many ways of regulating activity. The most extreme form is trying to ban an activity and having severe punishments for people who engage in it. The other end of the scale is simply to provide information about the risks of what you are doing. Just as we give people advice about how many portions of vegetables to eat a day, we could give people advice about how to gamble and to some degree that does already happen, though how effective it is remains to be seen.

Just to end, is that what you’re advocating: a soft touch, small amounts of paternalism with a bit of nudge?
The ideal situation would be one in which everyone is free to choose whether or not to gamble, according to their own preferences and values; those who choose to gamble enjoy it, no one is addicted to it and no one spends money they can’t afford to lose. We will never have a world like that. Getting the level of regulation just finely tuned so no one gets into problems with their gambling is impossible. Whatever laws and public health regulations we have, some people will do what they want. We can’t stop people smoking in this country. We can’t stop them binge drinking. We can’t stop middle-class, middle-aged people having a large glass of wine every night with their dinner. There are many forms of unhealthy behaviour that we know a good deal about but we’re just going to carry on anyway because we enjoy it. And gambling will be the same. There will be some people who get into health or social problems as a result. The gambling industry used to say there’s no such thing as a problem gambler; rather there are people with problems who gamble. I don’t think they say that any more and they do accept that gambling can cause problems. They wish to put in place measures that will stop, or at least mitigate, the misery, but there’s going to be no perfect solution I’m afraid.

From the ‘luck’ edition of New Philosopher.

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy at University College London. In the late 1990s Wolff was asked to sit on the Gambling Review Body, a government review body chaired by Sir Alan Budd, with the aim of coming up with recommendations to update the regulation of gambling in the UK. The committee recommended some changes to the law to liberalise gambling, as well as recommending that the industry set up a trust to pay for education, treatment, and research into problem gambling. Wolff is now a trustee of the Responsible Gambling Trust, which receives contributions from the gambling industry to pay for treatment, research, and education related to problem gambling. “It’s a political hot potato, of course,” says Wolff, “because we’re taking money from the gambling industry to research problem gambling and whatever the researchers we fund report there are going to be people who say, ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you.’” The Trust regularly commissions large projects to try to understand what is actually happening in a variety of betting environments with a particular focus at the moment on machine and online gambling. “We’re trying to find out the truth about what happens when people gamble and what problems people get into. We’re also looking at questions about whether some products are safer or more harmful than others, and whether messaging helps and educating the punter helps,” he says. “On the whole, we still have much to learn about what might make a difference.”

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