Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

Is the Lottery Ethical?

lottery_LottoBalls.jpgThere’s a lot of chatter on the ‘net today about the lottery. Seems someone from South Dakota just won the Florida lottery, to the tune of 222 million dollars.

Nice going. 
I’m sure that unnamed person will suddenly have a lot of new friends–and second cousins once removed–coming out of the woodwork. But how about the other fifty kazillion losing tickets people shelled out money for?
Are they the victims of some unethical, predatory scheme on the part of the state?
There have been a lot of arguments over the years that lotto victimizes those who can least afford it. (I found an interesting, if one-sided dissection of the arguments regarding the immorality of lotto in a random article in an Arkansas religious publication. Check it out if you want to read some of them.) The basic gist is that poor people are scammed into throwing their hard-earned money away, and the state shouldn’t be preying on them.
I disagree, and here’s why.

While I cede the point that poor people who might otherwise be saving those dollars, or spending them on local vendors, are instead gambling them on a fairly hopeless cause, and the state is, indeed, sponsoring such a dupe, to this I say, “Yeah, so? What’s your point?” I mean, have you ever actually met anyone, rich or poor, who expected to win?

Well, OK, I confess I do find myself somewhat surprised–and quite put out–when I discover I have not only not won but also have not hit so much as a single number when I play the NY MegaMillions. But heck, I need only buy a ticket or two before I learn my lesson–winning is astronomically unlikely. If I choose to play, I know it’s tantamount to tossing my money on the ground.
Except that it’s actually not that bad, because the lottery money goes toward public goods like education. (Whether it’s distributed fairly between the schools according to who spent the money for the tickets is another question.) People know this when they play. So what’s the big deal?
Saying that poor people are being enticed to throw their money away in disproportionate numbers seems like prejudiced reasoning to me. Unless we’re going to outlaw gambling altogether (and I suppose we can do that if we choose), why are we assuming poor people lack the mental capacity to calculate the odds against winning? I mean, I’m bad at math, but really, it’s just common sense. And, even if “they” were being hopelessly foolish in a way wealthier people were not, should we, as a state, or a nation, be regulating what any people are spending their money on? Can we stop the drunk dad from blowing his paycheck at the bar when he should be putting it toward his family? Do we want to live in a country where our lives are dictated to such a degree by the state?
I suppose one might argue we don’t have to stop this kind of gambling, but we don’t have to sponsor it either. 

What’s your opinion?
Comments read comments(8)
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Virna De Paul

posted May 28, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Hi–I agree that it’s unfair to presume “poor” is synonymous with gullible or stupid. The lottery is just an easy target for “unwise” spending or gambling, when the truth is people spend “unwisely” all the time–hence the term “retail therapy.” If the masses are being duped about their chances of winning, etc, that’s one thing, but everyone has their own version of hope. The person who won 222 million certainly is benefiting from his/hers. Anyway, great blog. I’m one of Holly’s clients and I’m glad she twittered about you!

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posted May 28, 2009 at 6:30 pm

I think that the people that play the lottery understand the risk:reward ratio, even if the math escapes them.
I would not advocate the abolition of the lottery. The people that play the lottery need that glimmer of hope.
It’s ethical, but a poor investment vehicle.
Couple of links from 2 of my other favorite blogs:

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Hillary Fields

posted May 28, 2009 at 6:56 pm

KES–GREAT links! Loved these articles. Maybe some concerned citizen’s group ought to get together and offer brochures for high-interest savings accounts to put out beside lotto kiosks?

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Albert the Abstainer

posted May 31, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Buy a ticket, one per draw, fantasize and treat that as entertainment.
Join a pool at work, one buck a person per week, and it is social.
Spend more than that and you are starting head into trouble.

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How to win the lottery

posted August 5, 2010 at 4:11 pm

everyone is dreaming about financial freedom, and it happens that lottery is one of the famous game that possible make the dream comes true, even it is so slim to win.. let the people play, there is no discrimination in playing the game..

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How do I Win the Lottery

posted June 30, 2011 at 10:43 am

I don’t see any harm in people playing the lottery, as long as they play responsibly.

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Urban Survival

posted July 12, 2011 at 8:36 am

If there is an opportunity for making a few quick bucks then no matter how little you have people the world over will justify paying over a dollar or two.

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posted February 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

can someone tell me if the lottery is meant to go on good causes, how on earth are the prize funds so high.

someone just won approx 44 million on the euro lottery the other day. thats mad. The countries of the world are in trouble yet 44 million was available on the lottery to win. I dont get it

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