The morality of betting: A case for the defence

Closeup of Benjamin Franklin's portrait on the 100-dollar bill

Anyone who takes betting seriously is bound to reflect upon the morality of it all sooner or later. In my case it was actually a friend of mine who got me thinking about the topic after something he said a while back. We were small talking about how professional sports betting might compare with an ordinary job. After kindly accomodating the commitment I’d already made to my betting project, he hesitantly objected, ‘it’s someone else’s money’.

Intuition had always backed me up but I was stumped for a justification. So I soon began mulling things over and I eventually arrived at a workable defence. I decided to flesh it out in this essay (1) in the hope that it would add to the debate, (2) to attempt to clear my own name as a sports bettor and (3) because it just seemed like the best fit for the first post on this blog. I really would do without the academic approach but this topic asks for it, plus it caters for a wider target audience.

The plan is simple though: lay out the main objections (as I understand them) and offer a reply for each in turn. I use the terms ‘betting/bettor’ over ‘gambling/gambler’ partly to signify the non-seedy side of gambling (in line with my own circumstances) but also because my focus here is really on non-recreational sports betting (although many of the arguments are applicable to gambling generally). You’re always welcome to throw in your two cents in the comments section.

Preliminary note about the bookmakers

Before we turn the spotlight on the bettors, I should mention that they have little to do with the negative publicity often piped through the media. The coverage is generally a taboo-riding exercise but it’s all fueled by a very palpable air of exploitation about the betting industry—for which the bookmakers are largely responsible.

I could easily go on a rant but, to be fair, a typical bookmaker is no more dirty than almost any profit-seeking enterprise these days. (When commercial law is the closest thing to an ethical code out there, what can you expect?) Still, bettors would have a lot less to contend with were it not for the bookies’ dubious ploys, which include:

  • the disproportionate number of betting shops in the poorest towns and cities
  • their profit drive for their gaming machines (aka FOBTs, ‘fixed odds betting terminals’)
  • their marketing strategy to promote betting as a regular form of entertainment
  • their open policy of limiting and refusing winning players’ bets

For the record, I don’t believe any of those are justifiable. The last point here though is that, for betting fans who want to win the moral debate, ignoring or dismissing any perceived wrongdoing (bookies’ baggage or whatever) only plays into the critics’ hands.

It’s just worth bearing the bookies in mind as we now consider the case against bettors.

Objection #1: A dangerous game

Let’s start at the top with perhaps the most common source of criticism: the potential for financial disaster and everything that entails. But it’s only when this outcome is coupled with the ‘slippery slope’ element that heavier betting activity becomes particularly hard to stomach for most people. Since there’s no immunity test for such danger, bettors tend to be regarded with a degree of contempt for their ‘irresponsible’ choice of pastime.

The reported rates of problem gambling around the world equate to many millions directly affected with often devastating consequences, not to mention the harm caused to families and the knock-on effects in society at large. This even leads some critics to argue that the harm outweighs the freedom to bet. If this is true then it asks a question of all bettors as choosing to play the game is itself a form of endorsement.

Reply

Indeed, I’m not one to downplay the harm that betting brings. I’m sure that if the FOBTs weren’t draining the lifeblood of the poor then sports betting would still enable the bookies to rake in most of the shortfall somehow. Rather, my problem here is a lack of perspective.

Firstly, the hardliners who disapprove on grounds of irresponsibility are, in my view, onto a non-starter. Immunity test or not, if I feel I’m in control of my betting activity then, simply, I shouldn’t need to prove it. Problems of trust may arise but then that’s just what they are, not an opportunity to scold for choosing to bet (alas, I speak from experience).

The real challenge is that even the staunchest defenders of personal freedom (count me in) must place the aforementioned harm on the other side of the scales. What do you say to the guy who lost it all—‘serves you right’? Definitely not my style.

If the inherent danger of betting was comparable to that of, say, hard drugs then there might be more to the objection in hand (far too big a stretch when you consider the fact that the vast majority of bettors play safe). Actually, many socially acceptable activities are the best match in that respect. Consider fatty foods, for example. While these foods are usually enjoyed as part of a normal diet, they present a risk of serious harm by way of excessive consumption; i.e. severe obesity and every other related cause of premature death. The parallels with betting are self-evident and so the tables are turned.

Moreover, when a given activity carries an inherent danger, a key condition for its social acceptability is an accessible means of avoiding or sufficiently minimizing the risk. Whether you’re eating, drinking, playing or even facebooking, no one will frown upon you if you do it responsibly. And over the course of this discussion I hope to demonstrate that non-recreational betting not only ticks that box but is also just as permissible as a traditional flutter at the races. But the point here for now is that bettors are responsible for their betting activity in so far as they’re responsible for their eating habits (not that I’m insinuating responsibility with regard to disorders).

The notion of responsible betting is at the heart of any successful moral defence. To what extent it weighs in on this objection and any other depends on how it’s defined; in fact, this whole debate may well stem from a disagreement over just that. In order to reach a suitable definition we really need to examine the critics’ case in its entirety. The remaining objections concern certain aspects of betting that are rather more uncommon among other walks of life.

Objection #2.1: ‘It’s (still) someone else’s money’

If you put betting alongside any ordinary means of income, a glaring distinguishing feature is the fact that the vast majority of bettors lose money. It is these losses which fund the whole industry, fattening up the bookies mostly but also, of course, the winners (or ‘sharps’ as they’re called, a few of whom belong to syndicates). So, technically, my friend wasn’t wrong, but the implication of his statement was that bettors must be lousy to aim to profit at the expense of others.

Reply

The critics can choose from several lines of attack against a bettor’s moral character (and I reckon my friend knew it too). They’re often unwittingly lumped together in the debate, to the detriment of the defendants’ case. I’ve chosen to separate them into three respective sub-objections for the sake of clarity as they comprise the bulk of the criticism.

Let’s just take the bare bones of my friend’s statement first and consider the winner-take-all format of betting. My response then is equally plain: it is valid to look upon betting as a gentlemen’s agreement, honour and all. Bettors may perfectly maintain their integrity as they aim to win the pot—yes, it’s true! Sure, worldly pressures usually turn all of that sour but the point is that it’s not by virtue of playing for keeps that many bettors follow suit.

Objection #2.2: Bad company

Beyond its entertainment value, the trillion-dollar sports betting industry is all cold, hard business, so morally speaking it doesn’t offer anything of substance. And, well, many bettors embrace the self-serving lifestyle and some even relish the idea of getting one up on their peers (I like to call these types, ‘I’m-all-right-Jack-asses’). Others go lower still and resort to fraud, devising steady streams of bogus betting systems and tipping services. Perhaps the most conspicuous bettors, though, are the common kind that are readily taken in by the lure of easy money (more on this shortly). Such a multitude of examples would itself appear to be an indictment of betting and all those who partake in it.

Reply

My previous argument stands here and it’s worth elaborating. The problems that betting brings may or may not evidence something rotten at betting’s core—it all depends on whether the correlation implies causation in this case. The thing is, as I said, betting isn’t essentially a means for questionable ends. It follows then that the blanket reproach of bettors is prejudiced. Betting may allow troublesome forces into the mix but without an intrinsic causal link to the effects there’s nothing to bear upon a bettor’s moral standing. For example, internet users can’t be blamed for facilitating drug trafficking. The associated problems may certainly be of real social and political concern (in which case bettors ought to be concerned too) but they’re just not damning of bettors per se. (For a likely source of the degeneracy, how about social deprivation?)

That said, I get the feeling that no single argument can rid bettors of their stigma. It seems to me that the problems surrounding betting may well run too deep, at least as far as the general public are concerned. But that’s no reason to stop now, especially as I have a shot at perhaps the most damaging problem of the lot.

Objection #2.3: Money for nothing

It’s common knowledge that easy money in betting is the stuff of fantasy but the facts are often disregarded in the pursuit of get-rich-quick schemes, usually for a lack of experience. Unsurprisingly, this shortcut mentality doesn’t go down well with hardworking taxpayers; jumping the queue is universally detestable, after all. But strangely enough, when it comes to betting, people tend not to differentiate the queuers from the jumpers and so all bettors get tarred with the same brush. The reason: (a lack of) social contribution.

Tax-free earners and reckless big spenders get a bad rap for obvious reasons, but critics may argue that bettors fail to pay their dues in a more fundamental and crucial respect. There’s a sense that bettors do not earn their winnings, at least not as respectably as upstanding citizens earn their salaries and wages. The sentiment is that bettors neglect a civil duty, that they sidestep common decency even, regardless of the merits of any individual case. It’s pretty simple really—every job sector serves a purpose in society whereas betting serves none other than personal gain; all take and no give.

Reply

Most bettors actually have a job but let’s put that aside for the sake of argument. There is, however, a more barefaced omission here: contributing to society needn’t involve a glowing career, or indeed any regular occupation for that matter! ‘Money for nothing’ means ‘good for nothing’ in this context, but that appraisal won’t wash with those bettors who try as hard as anyone to do something with their lives in some other way, perhaps at some other stage in their lives. Granted, we’re talking about a minority but then that’s true for most day jobs. This yet again prompts and corroborates the same line of reasoning as before.

We should be wary of dismissing this objection so quickly, however, as it may well be perpetuating the ‘gambler’ stereotype single-handedly! So the natural question is, why is it deep-rooted in the public’s psyche? I can offer the following explanation to try to take some of the heat off bettors. Capitalistic principles are almost sanctified these days as they’ve monopolized not only global economics but also Western values; where truly democratic ideals once stood, now stand the preconditions of the free market. Jobs are jobs because they bolster the capitalist system and, in so doing, reinforce an (insidious) form of social stability to which we’re now totally conditioned. Add to this an unhealthy dose of ever-growing fear and bettors may as well be fascists as far as opinion polls go.

I think that wraps up this section. The focus in the next and final objection shifts from a bettor’s personal character back to the function of betting in society, so we’ve kind of come full circle.

Objection #3: Anti-socialistic setup

There’s no shortage of money and players involved but betting is neither a job, nor a game. The bookmakers are just (fat) middle men—take them out of the picture and what you have is something akin to a business proposition but without a public commercial structure running the show. Now, as you’d expect, this leads to an imbalance. Anyone hard up and desperate for financial relief will always lose out to the bookies and sharps. The result is an anti-socialistic wealth distribution—the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.

Reply

It’s surely safe to assume that those who drain the betting pool rarely spare a thought for the little people. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that betting is a competition. For the charge here to stick there must be something wrong with the betting rulebook. And there isn’t, not unless betting is a social reform scheme. The winners tend to keep on winning in any game of skill or competitive environment—the only difference with betting is that money changes hands, but so what?

The distribution of wealth across the globe is already anti-socialistic, and this makes for an unlevel playing field everywhere. The disparity among the betting population is but one manifestation of this state of affairs; that is to say, it isn’t a problem that lies within the remit of the betting industry. Bettors may exacerbate things to an extent but then even a Nobel Prize winner’s pay packet comes with a price of its own. Last I heard, the wealthiest 1% in the world own more than the rest combined and the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. If we choose not to implicate the likes of doctors, teachers and engineers in this way then, again, it should be noted that an unlevel playing field isn’t a prerequisite for the betting industry either.

Incidentally, the only kind of problem that occurs within the betting set-up is the failure to safeguard against the dangers and malpractice we’ve been discussing, which still isn’t a problem with betting per se. To use an analogy, if I get dehydrated on a marathon run, I can blame myself for being ill-prepared or the organizers for a lack of provision, but I can’t blame the run itself (and then chide the other participants).

All right, that’s all the bases covered, at least as far as I can tell.

Conclusion

Looking at all the objections together, you can see that they’re somewhat indistinct and interconnected. The common thread is the notion that betting is inherently corruptive—the activity itself draws in the shady crowd. My central argument is that this is false simply because a bettor may go about his business without doing himself or anyone else any harm at all. That is to say that ‘responsible betting’ isn’t an empty buzzword. It turns out that a straightforward definition works just fine—betting responsibly means:

  • taking every reasonable precaution to avoid financial, personal, familial and social harm
  • playing a fair game (i.e. by the rules and in good faith)

Betting is a competition for a pool of wagers. Nothing nefarious about that. Sure, it’s open to abuse and it has its dangers, but the betting industry is a microcosmic mirror of how money matters play out on the world stage. The imbalances and harsh realities in each case are a product of the same pressures and strains so it’s no surprise to see that shady crowd hanging around. This means that bettors may never be renowned for their scruples, and I can live with that; (it’s not as if bettors have much to be proud about anyway). Nevertheless, stereotyping won’t change the upshot: betting is not immoral.

 

Photo credit: Markus.Volodymyr / public domain in United States, no known copyright infringement abroad—see copyright info on photo page and this / modified

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