Is gambling good?

Would you join in a crowd of people who gather together to lose 10 million dollars a year getting absolutely nothing in return? One would wonder whether there are people naive enough to fall for that or, if there are people who indeed join in such activity, why on earth would they do such a thing?

Strangely, this is what gambling is. Casinos and lotteries are just the joint venture of millions of people who join in to lose money for no proportional benefit. Anyone who sits down to calculate the odds of winning and losing knows that lottery is simply a losing deal. The fact that casinos and lotteries are stupendously profitable and produce no apparent good or service has only one reason: their obscene profit is the gamblers’ loss. In fact, economist call lottery the “stupidity test.”

Ironically, Americans (and certainly not the only ones) spend more in gambling than in all other forms of entertainment combined. The difference is that while in other forms of entertainment, you pay for some kind of satisfaction, in gambling, most people simply lose money with no gain.

Ever since the casinos opened in Singapore, three million visitors have crowded the premises, of which one million were tourists. Simultaneously, Singaporeans have spent 70 millions of dollars only in entrance fees (as of May 2010).

At this point, it all looks like gambling, more than a social or ethical problem is a kind of intelligence deficit problem.  However, we should ask what it is that drives millions of people to gamble and buy lottery.

There is one factor we haven’t mentioned: the hope, slim as it might be, of winning a handsome reward. In fact, it is this possibility alone that gives players the reward they seek. It seems that we are wired to be rewarded while we wait for future benefits. The reward is a chemical. It is called the “happiness hormone” even if it is not really a hormone but a neurotransmitter that the brain produces to make the person feel good while waiting for the delayed gratification. Why Americans buy an average of 150 lottery tickets per person a year, is not only because they statistically hope to win, but because of the very probability of winning, which makes their brains reward them instantly.

It is easy to see why this biological mechanism is a desirable feature of the human make up. Hunting-gatherers need to be steady in hope. Gatherers need to invest lots of time in searching for seeds, roots and bugs. Gatherers need to invest huge amounts of energy and run high risks in pursuing and bringing down prey. All this needs waiting time and a good deal of steadfastness or else one would easily despair and give up all hope of succeeding. What kept hunter-gatherers alive yesterday glues urbanites to computer games and gambling machines today.

We have brains that get excited with the expectations of winning a reward and the game manufacturers it. The key to a popular game is to keep the perfect equilibrium between keeping the expectation (avoiding boredom) and providing satisfaction (avoiding despair).

Gambling is not mere risk-taking, and in that it is different from the risks we take in our everyday decisions. Gambling is or could be considered a form of recreation, and recreation per se is good. St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that “just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul’s rest is pleasure,” (Summa theologiae, II-II 168, 2). And, he continues, this pleasure is obtained through games and recreation.

However, Aquinas was very well aware that everything that is pleasurable could turn vicious and addictive when it becomes unreasonable and harmful to the individual. So he acknowledged, that for everyone who engages in games, a special virtue is needed to guarantee a healthy and beneficial use of games. Aristotle called this virtue eutrapelia (Nichomachean Ethics 2 c. 7 # 13). It is certainly not a common word in today’s computer games era, but perhaps it is time to resuscitate the old virtue with new vigor.

Gambling or betting is not intrinsically wrong. That means that it is not wrong in itself, or that one can think of instances in which gambling and betting could be morally not harmful or even a beneficial form of entertainment. Now, something could be not wrong in itself, but be wrong well too often in the real facts of life. And gambling is a good example of that. In fact, casinos largely benefit from the easiness with which people fall victim to the addiction of gambling.

There is a still a more powerful connection between gambling and ethics. Ethics, in its best understanding deals with the fulfillment of the human potential, the art of achieving a good life. Shakespeare make Prospero utter in The Tempest: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our life is rounded with sleep.” (The Tempest, Act IV sc.1). As Country singer, David Mallett, put it, “Man is made from dreams and bones.” Dreams and hopes are the stuff human beings are made of.

Hope is meant to draw man onward with confidence in the future and even to the heights of immortality and spiritual encounter. Gambling taps on the power that hoping has within us. Casinos use that power, not to drive people to loftier goals but to retrieve from them monetary profit. The only word that accurately describes that action is exploitation.

Gambling can be just a game; or can ruin entire families. Right and wrong depends on what people make of it. But a realistic approach to gambling should not be oblivious to both the frailty and the loftiness of the human condition. This frailty should never be exploited in the name of business. That loftiness should never be betrayed by playing with our hopes, the very engine that draws us towards our highest destiny.


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