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Issue and Interchange

ADVOCATE 2: Gambling Per Se is Inconsistent with the Biblical Ethic

Before refuting the specific arguments of the Christian Gambling Advocate, I will sketch the case against gambling under the headings of three Biblical principles. I will refine the understanding of these principles under three further headings. Finally I will rebut several specific arguments of my opponent, even while stipulating agreement with several others.

Principle #1: Gambling places our property under unnecessary and foolish risk, thereby violating the principle of stewardship which God requires us to exercise with respect to all the property which has been entrusted to us.

That the risk is unnecessary is obvious. That it is foolish follows from the fact that in games of chance, losses might begin from the very first game, and are virtually guaranteed in the long run if playing against a "house" whose resources greatly exceed those of the gambler. Indeed, if one continues to stake bets on a chance outcome indefinitely, it will eventually lead to bankruptcy. The eventual ruin of one player or the other is a mathematical certainty, unless one party or the other quits before it happens (see, e.g. W. Warren, Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability (NY: Dover, 1963) pp. 330 ff.). Even the gambler who sincerely believes he can win must admit that he might not win: his property, too, is subject to instant loss.

The objection, that it may be a legitimate use of money to risk small amounts of property for the "recreational" benefit of a game, is negated by the simple consideration: why not simply play the game without a stake of property? But in case this objection still seems to have some merit, it will be addressed in greater detail later on.

Principle #2: Gambling is wrong, for it involves a desire to gain the property of one's neighbor without quid pro quo-- that is, without an equitable exchange of value.

This can be seen most clearly by realizing that gambling, unlike proper economic exchanges, is a "zero-sum game": the gain of one party is precisely equal to, and entails, the loss of the other party. Hoping to win, therefore, entails the simultaneous hope that your neighbor will lose. C.S. Lewis instinctively recognized this connection (though his preceding analysis faltered) when he said, "If anyone comes to me asking to play bridge for money I just say: `How much do you hope to win? Take it and go away.'" For the Christian, then, this kind of activity is unacceptable, for it puts him in a position of desiring his neighbor's loss rather than his neighbor's prosperity: this violates the law of love (cf. Westminster Larger Catechism #114: "The duties required in the eighth command [include].. to endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.")

Note carefully that the implied desire for your partner's loss is not entailed by a proper economic exchange, unless fraud is involved. If I trade my car for my neighbor Jack's horse, and we each enter the trade without compulsion, it is because my ends are better served by the horse, in my estimation; and Jack's by the car in his. I profit from the trade by gaining a horse at the expense of a car, and Jack profits from it by gaining a car at the expense of a horse. Though at first it seems paradoxical, in fact we can both profit from the transaction, for our ends and resources are different.

The objection, that the risk of loss was freely offered by both parties to the gambling "transaction", and specifically by the loser, is irrelevant; for my partner has no more right to make such an offer than I have. We have seen that my participation in the gamble involves immorality in two ways: my willingness to risk the uncompensated loss of a part of my estate, which is foolish, and my desire or willingness to deprive my neighbor of his, uncompensated, which violates the law of love. The immorality is deduced logically prior to the specification of the transaction as voluntary or involuntary. Its voluntary nature cannot, then make it legitimate, any more than the handshake of duelists sanctifies the subsequent murder which takes place.

Principle #3: Gambling is wrong in that it appeals to Chance for a favorable outcome, rather than God's Providence.

One cannot in good faith pray for a favorable outcome of the game; but we are to pray without ceasing, and whatsoever is not of faith is sin. First, one would be praying for a loss on the part of one's neighbor; but we are to pray for the good of even our enemies. Second, it would be tempting God to beseech Him to grant an outcome based on a condition we have arbitrarily set up and for which we have no legitimate basis for invoking His aid.

Look at it another way: God's Providence is the ultimate controlling force of all events. But to place one's hope for gain on an arbitrary supposition of what His Providence will cause to fall out, when there is no reason to expect that He will do so, is presumptuous.

We Take Account Of Both Basic Types Of Gambling In This Analysis

The discussion so far applies most clearly to those gambles which involve pure chance -- the roulette wheel or craps, for example. (Betting on sporting events falls into this category as well: the spread, if done skillfully, equalizes the chance of either selection winning.) Other kinds of games involve elements of skill which, by virtue of reducing the "sovereignty" of chance, might seem to change the morality of the games for the better. We are not talking about that knowledge and finesse which is presupposed for a game to be "fair" -- knowing the ranking of poker hands, for example. We are referring to two kinds of skill which go beyond this. (a) In games such as bridge or poker, part of the strategy is to use bluff or other forms of deception to gain an advantage over one's fellow players. (b) In games such as blackjack, some players have devised ways of keeping track of past event (e.g. cards that have been dealt) in order to increase their odds when betting on future events (e.g. cards that will be dealt). They do this by exploiting the theory of conditional probabilities. Neither of these cases, however, mitigates the immorality of gambling. In the first case, why should the immorality of appealing to Chance in order to strip my neighbor of some of his property be lessened, simply because I add to the process my concentrated powers of deception? The second case is only an anomaly: by changing the presuppositions of the game, in effect the odds should be recalculated to restore the game to its status as "fair". The practical proof is this: no casino will allow any such person to play on once discovered. The market has a way of squeezing these anomalies out of action, even if the terms of the game must be changed. Also, we would be irked if the casino used such tactics: but in a hypothetical Christian setting (i.e., no "spoiling the Egyptians" allowed) why should there be a double standard?

Analogies To Business Ventures, Insurance, Etc. Are Fallaciously Cited

My adversary claims that rejecting gambling because of its relation to chance would imply that one should also eschew business deals involving an element of risk. The implied argument appears to be that as this would be an unacceptable conclusion, the antecedent must be false; consequently, gambling properly so-called cannot be condemned on the ground of its appeal to uncertainty or the risk of loss.

In passing, I note that if the argument from the analogy to business ventures were actually valid we should be able to follow the analogy through, and it should be as permissible to devote a significant portion of one's life savings to the investment of "gambling" as it is to business ventures. My opponent, then, should not limit the application of his thesis to things like one-dollar football pools, but should come right out and declare that he would have no moral counter-advice to persons proposing to gamble, say, 30% of their life savings, provided of course that they were confident that they would win.

Second, even if it were necessary to concede the argument implied by the analogy to investments, it would not lead to my opponent's conclusion, for there still would remain the argument of Principle #2 -- no quid pro quo -- against his position, but which does not affect business ventures, insurance, etc.

Be this as it may, a close examination shows that the analogy of gambling to investments fails anyway. It is based on a failure to distinguish between uncertainty and randomness.

All events in creation are contingent upon certain other events occurring as a precondition, and are, therefore, uncertain (from a human standpoint). In this strict sense, we can say that everything from the rising of the sun tomorrow to the outcome of the dice I roll is "uncertain". The difference between the two extreme cases is seen by the crucially different way that we relate to them as we reflect on God's Providence. On the one hand, there is every reason to believe that, in God's Providence, the sun will rise tomorrow. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that, in God's Providence, I will roll "snake-eyes".

This difference of attitude will provide a sound litmus test for distinguishing between righteous and unrighteous risking of loss. When considering an investment, we should ask: "Is there a rational expectation and hope for increasing our outward estate by means of the venture, after carefully considering all factors of God's Providence known to be relevant?" The Christian investor should only move affirmatively if the answer to this question is Yes. The element of chance in gambling differs from the uncertainty entailed in a investment, in that there is in gambling no rational basis for hoping or expecting not to suffer loss.

An investment might fail, but this may not be read back to the automatic conclusion that making the investment was wrong, any more than getting lucky at gambling proves that the act of gambling was right. Otherwise, we would be saying that the end justifies the means. Instead, the attitude of the heart, judged by the norm of Scripture, is the key to judging an action righteous or unrighteous. Finally, we need to remember that pursuing our calling on earth is a divine command which we may no more avoid than we may shirk getting out of bed in the morning -- despite the risk and uncertainties. Even a failed business need not be a cause of shame.

Cases In The Gray Area

Having laid the groundwork, we are now in a position to evaluate the cases of gambling that seem to be benign and acceptable. The most plausible instances seem to be cases where minor amounts of money are spent, and the loss is chalked up to either entertainment or social camaraderie. Now, it is not the thesis asserted here, that spending money for entertainment is always wrong, nor that the playing of games of chance per se is wrong. The cases in the gray area are difficult because we do not see the essence of gambling revealed in unmixed form: we see instead a mixture of several classes of behavior, making the analysis complex.

All ethical judgments pertaining to an individual's actions must include the intent of the individual in performing the action. For example, if an involuntary nervous twitch caused someone's arm to jerk, hitting a wall which dislodged a brick which fell and hit some people on the head, killing them, it would not count as murder, though the same action properly would count as murder had it been done with the intent of killing. I submit that it may be possible for an individual to participate in a game which others are using as an occasion for gambling (and therefore subject to the criticisms outlined above), yet do so from a matrix of intentions such that, for him, it is not gambling at all. In particular, I suggest asking the following questions in the course of examining one's heart on this issue of the legitimacy of seeking entertainment in games that are used for gambling.

1. Am I limiting my total expenditure (including the cost of the trip, if any) to the amount that I can, with a clear conscience before God, devote to mere entertainment?

2. Do I either hope or expect to win anything?

3. Do I find myself praying for a "win"?

4. Would I be equally enamored of the game if participation were free of charge?

5. Do I regard the bet as a "user fee" (rather than a stake in hope of winning my neighbor's property)? Do I always place the minimum permitted bet?

If the answers to these question are "yes,no,no,yes,yes", then it is probably okay to play. But then, answering in this fashion proves that you are not, by intention, gambling at all, but rather paying to play a game that you find recreational or entertaining. This, then, is the resolution of the gray areas cases, which does not require compromising Biblical principle. Nevertheless, so inclined is the human heart to self-deception and rationalization, that I am inclined to recommend against participation even in this restricted sense. A little leaven leavens the whole lump -- make certain there is not even a grain of it!

Blunders Of The Christian Gambling Advocate

Most of the errors made by my opponent should now be obvious. For the sake of completeness, however, I will quickly run through them, starting with the numbered reasons under the section "What a Steal".

1.1 "Would gambling per se still be wrong if the gambler had no desire to acquire property and returned all property so acquired?" First, was this attitude and intent present at the commencement of the game? If "No", then the evasion has no force with respect to evaluating the moral stance of the individual at the moment of the game. If "Yes", then the game, as intended by the participant, was not gambling at all; the money was simply functioning for him as a cipher to keep track of winners and losers -- not different really from the play-money of Monopoly.

1.2,1.3 Gambling cannot be classed a legitimate "voluntary exchange" for the reasons listed under Principle #2 above. The desire to acquire my neighbor's property to his net loss reflects a covetous spirit. The fact that he is willing to submit to the possibility of loss for the chance to do the same to me only adds to the viciousness of the situation.

1.4 Gambling is not an instance of gift-giving, since a gift ceases to be a gift if it is conditional. Like grace, there may not be strings attached. May we think of gambling as the awarding of a prize? Of course one could define the result of gambling as a prize, in which case we would have to say that some kinds of prizes are right and some are wrong. The objections to gambling are not affected by defining it into a new category; conversely, prize-giving in general need not be susceptible to the moral criticisms defines above. The offerer of a prize is not subjecting his estate to potential uncompensated loss in exchange for the hope of gaining possession of someone else's property. On the contrary, he may be deriving advertising exposure from the event, or he may, out of generosity, wish to advance a good cause or stimulate achievement in some area of worthwhile endeavor. Against this there is no law. Sneaking in the notion of "labor" involved in skillful gambling makes exactly as much sense as suggesting that the professional burglar's intricate and demanding labors grant legitimacy to his gains. What makes the labor involved in a business morally exemplary, if it is, is not the mere exertion of effort, but rather the fact that it involves worthwhile service, and fulfillment of the obligations of a life calling, and does not involve moral turpitude. Other moral differences between business and gambling, both in the nature of the transaction, and in the relation to uncertainty, were described earlier. The favorable citation of footnote number 10 by our Christian gambling advocate seems to indicate that he holds forth the possibility of going into gambling as a profession. We challenge him to show on what basis he would try to dissuade a young man from entering the "field" of gambling as a life calling (provided of course that the young man intended to tithe, provide for his family, etc.).

2. The Gambling Bug -- Nolo contendere.

3. Chances Are -- We need not imagine a pagan lying prostrate before an idol of "Lady Luck" to realize the difficulty for the Christian in the relation to chance created by gambling. My opponent spindles himself on the horns of a dilemma here. One may only look to Chance or God's Providence as the ground for any future random event. On the one hand, there is a sense in which it is unavoidable to "appeal to" Chance if one gambles with the hope of winning. Indeed, we could take as the very definition of a "random event" an event for which there is no more reason to expect, in God's Providence, its occurrence than the occurrence of an alternative. (Though His Providence determines the result of a flipped coin, there is no reason, based on what we know of the initial conditions of the flip, to expect His Providence to favor one side or the other: hence, an a priori 50-50 probability). Thus, some appeal to Chance is inherent in the nature of the case; the Christian is forced to desire a specific outcome for which there is no basis for trusting God's Providence to provide, nor for praying for a favorable outcome. On the other hand, the alternative is worse yet. He must then look to Providence for the implied hope of his neighbor's loss.

I willingly stipulate agreement with my opponent's position in sections 4-7, only pointing out, in connection with "Crimes and Misdemeanors", that once having seen the immorality of gambling, it is not surprising (though not a proof) to find it almost universally associated with organized crime and a debauched and thieving people; that the same state which is famous for its extensive and legal network of casinos also permits counties to legalize prostitution; and other such observations. Contrapositively, it is not surprising that we do not find roulette wheels at church picnics, to allow sporting brothers to bet against each other for fun and fellowship. The Christian ethic is a seamless garment, and we see its norms confirmed both in the observance and in the breech. For the Christian, then, all bets are off!

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
1-23-96 tew
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