The ethics of risk in the gambling debate

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Rev. Richard McGowan, S.J ., is a professor at the Carroll School of Management and economics department at Boston College. He has written extensively on the effects of expanded gambling and serves on the board of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling . His latest book on the gambling industry is The Gambling Debate.

The metaphor of ships passing through the night is perhaps overused, but in discussing how the two sides of the gambling debate view each other it is appropriate. The key to this misunderstanding is the concept of risk. The term “risk” is derived from the Italian risco or rischio, which implies both the danger that one is taking and the venture that one is embarking on. It was first used in the Renaissance mercantile world to describe the situation faced by sailors and the owners of ships as they sailed the dangerous waters around Africa and the Americas in the adventurous search for precious cargo that could be sold in Europe. The word then slowly moved into everyday language, especially describing strategies behind gambling and warfare.

So risk involves two elements: danger and venture. Both have to be balanced when an individual or society decides whether the risk is a wise choice. Certainly this is the situation that describes gambling. There are the dangers that are associated with gambling activity such as addiction, bankruptcies, and other social costs. But there is also the entertainment/adventure of placing bet, which is clearly part of human nature.

Those who oppose the expansion of gambling emphasize the dangers that society is taking in allowing additional gambling while discounting any enjoyment factor that gambling might give to its patrons. If the casino/lottery has all of the odds on its side, what pleasure could the gambler possibly have? Meanwhile, advocates of additional gambling routinely portray gambling as harmless fun (watch a Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun commercial!) while brushing aside any social problems that are impossible to measure so therefore they do not exist.

What is interesting is how the two sides of the expanding gambling issue want government to function as a parent. It is very similar to the recent situation involving the California parents who allowed their 16-year-old daughter to attempt to sail solo around the world. Critics asked how her parents could allow her to take such a dangerous risk, while others defended the parents by saying the adventure of such a voyage justified the parents’ confidence in their daughter. Of course, one might ask just how willing were the parents to pay for the rescue that eventually had to be made?

In the gambling debate, there is a bit of irony in play here. Critics of additional gambling tend to fall into two camps: social liberals and social conservatives. Usually, social liberals want government to stay out of personal issues while advocating government interference in the economy, while social conservatives want government interference in personal issues while denying that government should play a significant role in the economy. But both of these groups unite in wanting government to act like the parent who needs to protect his/her child from the danger of gambling. Meanwhile the majority of the population thinks that gambling is “worth the thrill of it all” but seems to want to ignore the long term implications of additional gambling.

Ultimately, if the two sides of this debate are going to reach some type of understanding, they need to acknowledge that life is a risky affair where the dangers and thrills of life will always need to be balanced. Government needs to be the “parent” that learns to trust that its citizens will recognize danger as well as adventure. For trust is a risk-willing predisposition where the role of education is to have citizens who develop a virtuous, not a vicious, circle between trust and risk willingness.

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