Notebook > Money

Plundering for fun

Money | The moral problem with gambling has as much to do with winning as with losing

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

When Charles Barkley was a star player in the NBA, he often said that kids should not look up to athletes as role models. A recent interview Barkley had with ESPN, in which he detailed his "stupid, bad habit" of gambling, proves that the same holds true for ex-athletes. Barkley told ESPN that over the years he has lost about $10 million gambling, including $2.5 million once in a single six-hour period.

"But the problem is when you can't afford it," Barkley said of betting. "I can afford to gamble. I didn't kill myself when I lost two and half million dollars. . . . I like to gamble and I'm not going to quit" (Around the Horn, Feb. 17).

This has become a common line of defense among high-stakes gamblers. When news broke a few years ago that conservative writer William Bennett liked to relax by gambling with hundreds of thousands of dollars in Las Vegas casinos, Bennett maintained that he never lost anything his family could not afford to lose. "I don't play the 'milk money,'" Bennett told the Washington Monthly at the time. "I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything."

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This view of when gambling crosses into the realm of the immoral may be behind the American public's widespread approval of betting. A May survey from the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of adults disagreed with the statement that "it is morally wrong to gamble." Seventy-five percent of Roman Catholics disagreed with the statement, as did 43 percent of white evangelical Protestants.

What we seem to have here is a textbook example of "defining deviancy down." Gambling has become so commonplace, so much a part of American life, that Americans have forgotten the older arguments against betting.

It would probably surprise most people today to learn that the old Christian ethic disapproved of gambling not so much because a gambler might lose bets and harm his family, although that was part of it. The larger concern was that he might win bets and harm other families.

The older theologians could not conceive of how a person could gamble in a way that was loving toward his neighbor, in a way that obeyed the radical command of Philippians 2:4 to "look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

A worker could seek a profit by producing something beneficial to others. The same held true of an investor. Although both could be motivated by greed, work and investing weren't inherently selfish. A gambler, on the other hand, was engaged in what could only be a zero-sum game.

The skilled gambler, argued the great 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge, takes advantage "of the unwary or unskillful to deprive them of their property without compensation" (Systematic Theology). The gambler had to violate the Eighth Commandment in one way or another, at least according to the Westminster divines' teaching that the commandment requires "the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others." (Whatever else a gambler does, he harms the estate of either himself or someone else.)

The older theologians also anticipated the argument that a losing gambler had given up his money or goods voluntarily. "The answer is," wrote another great 19th-century theologian, R.L. Dabney, "that his consent is one which he has no right to give, because it is prompted by an immoral motive, namely: the hope of plundering his rival" (The Practical Philosophy). And with one question Dabney exposed the motives of those who say they gamble for the sport of it and not out of love for money (something I said years ago when I participated in an annual NCAA tournament pool): "Why, then, do they not play for the sport without the bets?"

That's a good question for those who say gambling is not morally wrong. The Charles Barkleys of the world would probably say that gaming without money would not carry the thrill of potential riches. Christian gamblers who profess to love their neighbors need a better answer.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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