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Lottery or Lootery?

Gordon Giles asks whether the national lottery is immoral.

It is impossible to contemplate the ethical value of something unless one knows what it is. Where the National Lottery is concerned, this is not quite as straightforward as we might expect (although it is not impossible). The problem is that many descriptions of the Lottery are themselves morally loaded. For example:

1) “The National Lottery gives people a chance to win money, while also supporting national arts and charities.”

2) “The National Lottery is a tax on the poor, exploiting the fact that it is their only chance to break out of a poverty trap, and using the proceeds to subsidise expenditure which mostly benefits the rich.”

3) “The National Lottery enables ordinary people to have a harmless little flutter from time to time, and raises money for good causes.”

4) “The National Lottery is a public and authorised form of gambling, causing addiction, obsession, greed and selfishness.”

5) “By playing the National Lottery, any adult may choose to purchase an equal chance to match six numbers chosen entirely at random, where the resulting financial gain is solely determined by the congruency of the selection and the degree and extent of equally random success among other players.”

These are only five possible descriptions, and I’m sure that readers can think of several more. To them we can add further, ‘factual’ comments, some of which are also loaded:

a) “Since the Lottery has begun, Gamblers Anonymous have experienced a 17% increase in enquiries.”

b) “The chances of winning the jackpot on the Lottery are one in fourteen million.”

c) “You are more likely to be murdered than to win the jackpot on the Lottery.”

d) “12% of Lottery money goes as Tax. 28% goes to charities.”

e) “In some areas, where money is tight, some people are spending £5-10 per week on tickets and scratchcards, representing up to 25% of their disposable income.”

I imagine that most readers will sympathise with some of these statements, and not with others. All of them purport to be true, and you will not have to go far to find an advocate for any of them. You may have to go a long way to find someone who accepts all of them. All I have done is attempt to characterise the National Lottery. Of course, we all know what it is, but when we describe it, we invoke moral beliefs.

It is impossible to talk about the lottery without talking about money and/or chance. And this must be so, because the Lottery, like any form of gambling, involves the conjunction of money and the as yet undetermined results of some process or activity.

Some gambling involves a certain degree of skill – betting on the horses and the pools can be based upon knowledge of form, such that there can be an ‘informed’ bet. This obviously doesn’t apply to the National Lottery. Another difference is that betting on a horse, or even on the weather, is not susceptible to what is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’. For an introduction to this, see the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, by Simon Blackburn. The fallacious gambler supposes that a particular result will arise because it either has, or has not, so far arisen. It may well be rational to ‘stay with the run’ when betting on horses but it makes no sense when betting on a purely random process such as a lottery. Those people who always bet on the same numbers in the Lottery each week may have succumbed to the fallacious belief that if they stick to these same numbers, they are more likely to win eventually. Of course, other people stick to the same numbers each week because they are either lazy or have some sentimental attachment to that set of numbers, and harbour no delusions about any increased likelihood of winning.

The randomness of the lottery sets it apart from many other forms of gambling. Anyone who watches that crucial twenty minutes of Lottery time on national television each Saturday will have noticed how the creation of randomness has been elevated to an artform; precautions are even taken to ensure that the sets of balls used are determined by chance. They will also have noticed that the Lottery is all about money. Practically this appears to be so – there are prizes, and the winning of them is the object. But it is not the winning of money itself that is most interesting philosophically. The ethics of giving millions of pounds to individuals does not concern me here, although I am sure that many would want to question the size of the prizes, if not the principle of awarding them in the first place.

For I suspect that the cash prizes are not the sole attraction for playing. Beneath the desire to win lies an affirmation of randomness, individualism and instant gratification, all three of which are already characteristic of late Twentieth Century British society. That is why the Lottery has stolen the soul of the nation.

As we have seen, the Lottery is random. It has no favourites, rich or poor may win, individuals or syndicates, experienced punters or first time buyers. The notions of justice and fairness are not appropriate (it would not be ‘unjust’ if a rich tycoon bought just one ticket and won £22 million), for while it may be that every purchaser has an equal chance, the Lottery is susceptible to the same charge made against the Poll Tax – that it treated people equally, but for doing so, was not fair. What was despised in that context is now affirmed willingly. The Poll Tax was seen as making the poor pay for the rich, but the same could be said of the Lottery, particularly because ticket sales are highest among the lower paid.

Being random, the Lottery dehumanises those who take part. In casting his or her lot, a punter becomes a statistic – absolutely nothing of character,personality, social standing, race, creed, age or sex makes any difference. And while it is deplorable to discriminate on these bases, it is dehumanising to see all of them as irrelevant. For then, nothing has any value.

While the Lottery denies our individuality and personality, it promotes individualism. “What would I do with a million pounds?” This is a question that the very existence of the Lottery has forced each one of us to ask ourselves. The focus is on me, on self. Syndicates and charity donations do not let us off the hook. Enrolling in a syndicate serves little more function than to increase one’s own chances of winning (although in doing so, one lessens the potential prize). Some people would undoubtedly want to give large proportions of their winnings to charity, but we must never forget that money is power, and that the desire to give can sublimate a desire for control by one individual of another.

OK, that’s unfair. Many people enjoy having a flutter, and with the best will in the world would enjoy winning, and would genuinely want to help other people if they did so, and would share their prize. That’s a really good thing, and I withdraw the charge of individualism. Except that notice that the Lottery is prepared to give all it has to offer to one person, if necessary. One individual can have all the loot, if pimpish randomness decrees it.

My third worry is that the Lottery encourages instant gratification. That, of course, is what buying an ‘Instant’ (scratch card) is all about. And sadly, in most of millions of times, that is the one thing that is denied. For the first time in history, our false hopes can be quantified. There is some pleasure and excitement in revealing three identical squares underneath the silver foil (I know – I won 25p on a Club biscuit wrapper a couple of years ago), but it is a rare pleasure. To win a large sum on the Lottery itself is even rarer. Where I live, in an urban area, the queues outside the newsagent on Saturday afternoons make it almost impossible to buy anything else in the shop. But Lottery tickets are on sale throughout the week. Why then do so many people have to buy their tickets only a matter of hours before the big draw? Is it perhaps because having bought the ticket, they need to know the result immediately? We live in a society that has got used to and expects fast food, instant access, and no waiting. Perhaps the Lottery also inspires impatience – it certainly reflects it.

It will be fairly clear by now that the Lottery and I are not good friends. I know that there are those who enjoy it, and I respect their point of view. There are many for whom a couple of weekly tickets does no harm, and whose level of charitable donations, spirit of generosity and ability to enjoy Saturday nights are not affected. I suspect that one’s attitude will inevitably depend on one’s experience, just as one’s attitude to alcohol or drugs often does. At any rate, personal experience has the power to alter our perspective radically and quickly. So if you disagree with me that the Lottery has a lot to answer for ethically, then let’s agree to differ – after all, I have not for one moment suggested that any individual should not buy a ticket.

For there isn’t a right answer, is there? We don’t actually have answers any more. We have questions, but not answers, and so it would be utterly postmodern to conclude on a note of openmindedness. Our own personal experiences affect what we think, and our thoughts and opinions are authenticated by our feelings. You can’t want to buy a Lottery ticket and also say it’s a bad thing. And the Lottery doesn’t hurt anybody either.

Well, it does hurt people actually. It damages them in the short term by tapping scant resources. It breeds short-lived excitement, and resignation to an unhappy lot (ie no win). It damages people over the long run, because it can undermine any confidence to succeed – where someone’s key hope is the false one to win, and it is repeatedly crushed, week after week, then despondency can set in. If one wanted to be really radical, one could contemplate the longterm effect in terms of social control and conformity. Gambling is addictive to those who are susceptible to addiction, just as drink is. I don’t know how many breweries or tobacco manufacturers are state-owned, but having a National Lottery is equivalent. As a nation, we are sponsoring this. The state is promoting the Lottery on television, when it forbids cigarette advertising.

The objection would be, of course, that if there is a case to be made against smoking tobacco (or protecting our children from it), it is because it is potentially lethal to smokers and those in their proximity. The decision to take up smoking should therefore be a mature one, because it is damaging, and addictive. The same could be said for alcohol, although the danger to others is less obvious. Gambling, of which the Lottery is now our most famous example, is further down the line – it does not damage others, nor the gambler him or herself.

It is noticeable that death seems to be the criterion for judgment here. The implication is that if something is not life-threatening then it is OK. But I want to suggest that there are other ways in which people can be damaged, ways from which we (society) should want to protect them. Causing death (either directly or indirectly) is morally undesirable, but perhaps we should go further than that, and legislate against other ways in which non-participants may be led to suffer as a consequence of particular social behaviour.

Neither alcohol nor gambling in themselves do harm – it is addiction that does the damage. Families of those who have been addicted will know what I mean. The heroes, the enablers, the silent ones and the victims (all characters in the real-life drama of addiction) do not see addiction as only harmful to the addict. Addictions are expensive and stressful. For the addict, the craving for sensation or substance can be overpowering. And family and friends have to endure his or her behaviour and its consequences. Popular and flippant use of the word ‘addict’ has devalued the powerful currency of dependency.

Gambling can be addictive, which means that there are addicts of gambling whose families suffer financially and emotionally. The encouragement of it shows a lack of concern for the potential victims. The encouragement of drinking and smoking is similarly immoral. But note that it does not follow from this that it is immoral to buy a Lottery ticket, or have a pint in the pub. It is not the drink that is dangerous, but the addiction to it. We do not ban the sale of tobacco, drink or Lottery tickets, but we do not permit the advertising of addictive substances on television. We do not ban the object of addiction simply because someone might become addicted. That would be seen by many as far too strict, although it seems to be one of the reasons we ban hard drugs. We just do not encourage people to adopt the habit. There is, of course, a distinction to be made between encouraging someone to do something, and not discouraging them…

What is immoral about the Lottery is not that it exists, or that people buy tickets, or even that they have false hopes when they do so. No, what is immoral about the Lottery is that it is the National Lottery. Even the most liberal moral codes seek to protect children, and not encourage the (albeit unintentional) damaging of third parties. Personally I believe that instant gratification, individualism, greed and an attitude to life that treats everything as of equal or random value is also to be deplored, and so I would also argue for a strong sense in which the phenomenon of a National Lottery is immoral. But if you, gentle reader, feel that a climate of greed, selfcentredness and chance success is healthy for Britain, then I would still commend to you the weaker form of my argument – that we should have a coherent and consistent policy on Gambling, Alcohol and Tobacco, which actively seeks to minimise their negative effects, rather than passively accepting the indirect damage they can do to people who never chose to have anything to do with them in the first place.

© Gordon Giles 1996

Gordon Giles is the Curate at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Cambridge.

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