Ethical Issues Gambling and Ethical Theories

EthicalIssues: Gambling and Ethical Theories


Gamblingis a controversial issue where some believe it is an ethical activitywhile others hold that it is unethical. Gambling is one of the oldestactivities in human history, but the number of gamblers has beenincreasing tremendously in the recent past. The utilitarian theoryholds that gambling is an unethical act because it minimizes thehappiness of the gamblers, their family members, and colleagues inthe long-run. Although gambling seems to increase the happiness ofgamblers in the short-run, this happiness diminishes with time. Thedeontological theories hold that gambling is unethical becausegamblers are not motivated by the desire to accomplish some moralobligations. Virtual ethics is a perspective that seeks to derive thecharacter of individuals from their acts. For example Gamblers may beperceived to be immoral people who get money through dishonesty.Under relativism, the gamblers cannot be judged to be immoral ormoral because there are no standard morals.

Keywords: Ethical theories, ethical perspectives, gambling,utilitarianism, deontological theories, relativism.

EthicalIssues: Gambling and Ethical Theories

Gamblingis among the activities that impact human life in both negative andpositive ways. In most cases, gambling is embedded into the societythrough leisure, entertainment, tourism, and sports (Rickwood,Blaszcynski, Delfabbro, Dowling &amp Heading, 2010). Theopportunities for people to gamble have been expanding over the yearsand the practice has been embracing sophisticated technology, whichindicates that gambling is more likely to expand than to vanish inthe future. Gambling is an activity that involves wagering of fundsor valuable items on events that have uncertain outcomes. Gamblingcategorized into three, namely betting and wagering, gaming, andlottery style games (Rickwood et al., 2010). Although gambling is oneof the sources of revenue for the government and the private sector,the fact that it results in economic and psychological challenges toparticipants, their families, and the community at large makes it acontroversial issue that is widely discussed in the public sphere.This controversy is advanced by two major camps, where one camp holdsthat gambling is morally right and the other one believes thatgambling is an unethical practice. This paper will address the issueof gambling from different ethical theories and perspectives. Ethicaltheories (including the utilitarian, deontological, and virtualethics) and ethical perspectives (such as the relativism) consideredin the present study are based on different principles that help inthe determination of factors that contribute virtuous and ethicalbehavior with regard to the issue of gambling.

Inoutline, the structure of this paper consists of six parts. The firstsection addresses the background and types of gambling. The secondsection addresses the issue of gambling under the theories ofutilitarianism. The third part provides the analysis of the issue ofgambling using the deontological theories. The fourth part analysesthe issue of gambling using the virtue ethics. In the fifth section,the issue of gambling has been analyzed using the relativismperspective. The paper concludes that ethical theories and ethicalperspectives considered in the study are based on differentprinciples that help in the determination of factors that contributevirtuous and ethical behavior with regard to the issue of gambling.


Equipmentsand writings found in the tombs as well as other places indicate thatgambling is among the oldest activities in the history of man. Thepractice has been growing at different rates in different parts ofthe world, depending on the perspective of the larger populationregarding the activity. Currently, the amount of money spent in thegambling sector exceeds the revenue generated in most the economicsectors that have historically been given a priority over gambling.For example, gamblers in the United States spend about $ 57 billion,compared to $ 20 billion spent in the music recordings and movietickets combined and $ 28 billion of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, BurgerKing, and Starbucks’ annual sales combined (Vacek, 2011). The highrate of growth, and the negative effects associated with gamblingmake it a highly debated issue, especially among the supporters ofdifferent ethical theories and perspectives. These theories andperspectives explain how gambling results or does not result in thebreach of ethical behavior.

Gamblingand utilitarian theories

Utilitariantheory is a type of act consequentialism, which holds that that mostappropriate way to determine whether a given act is wrong or right isto review its consequences or results. This theory is based on theprinciples that given a list of several choices, one should selectthe alternative that is likely to produce the most desirable resultsfor the largest number of people affected by the choice (Jacobson,2008). To this end, the supporters of the utilitarian theorydetermine whether gambling causes more harm compared the good itcauses to participants. The utilitarian perspective encourages peopleto take alternatives that maximize their pleasure, which is a primafacie reason to justify one’s engagement in gambling. From thegambler’s perspective, gambling increases their happiness and givesthem an opportunity to maximize their enjoyment. However,utilitarianism goes beyond the interest of individuals indulging intounethical actions.

Somepeople argue that gambling increases the happiness of the gambler andthe government or the society has no reason to prevent them. However,studies have shown that gambling is addictive and culminates in aseries of challenges in the long run. According to McComb &ampHanson (2009) the lifetime prevalence of gambling in among thecollege students ranges between 67 % and 97 %, where 14 % of thestudents are already suffering from severe addiction. This translatesto about six million American adults and half a million teens whoexperiencing problem gambling. The large number of college studentsengaging in gambling indicates a higher risk of addiction, which isin turn associated with other problems, including the mental,spiritual, physical, emotional, and psychological problems. Thesevere levels of addiction may result in more serious problems, suchsuicidal ideation, suicide, and depression among other problems thatincrease the risk of losing life in the long run. This confirms thatgambling increases the happiness of the gambler in the short-term,but subjects them to a large number of risks in the long-term.Therefore, an argument that gambling is moral since it maximizes thehappiness of gamblers is baseless because it maximizes theirsuffering in the long-run.

Theuse of prima facie alone cannot justify gambling on the grounds thatit maximizes the happiness of the gambler. However, under theutilitarian theory, the prima facie argument is overridden by theeffect of one’s indulgence into gambling on other people, such asthe family members and colleagues (Collins, 2003). Gambling is atempting activity that pressures gamblers to use all their wealth andgo for what is owned by people who are close to them (including thefamily members and colleagues) once they have exhausted theirproperty. This increases the conflict between gamblers and theirfamily members as well as their friends. Research shows that gamblerswho plan to gamble 6.1 % of their monthly income end-up gambling with10.5 %, which reduces their financial capacity to meet theirobligations, such as taking care of the families or spouses (McComb &ampHanson, 2009). Apart from the financial challenges, the familymembers of the addicted gamblers suffer from physical andpsychological problems. This confirms the notion that a singlegambler cam increases the suffering of a family of more than oneperson or a group of friends. It is morally unjustifiable to maximizethe happiness of a single gambler at the expenses of the happiness ofmany family members and colleagues, which means that gambling iswrong under the utilitarian theory.

Deontologicaltheories and gambling

Deontologytheories are also referred to as the duty-based arguments becausethey encourage people to determine whether actions are wrong or rightdepending on the moral obligations or duties. Under the deontologicaltheories, actions are morally right as long as they are pursued withthe objective of fulfilling some rules of conduct that an individualhave an absolute obligation to obey (Collins, 2003). The theorieshold that people should obey these moral obligations irrespective ofwhether they have the desire or the interest to obey them. Thisimplies that moral duties are there to be followed without regardingtheir consequences or happiness of a given action, as held by theutilitarian perspective. Under normal circumstances, human beings areexpected to do or avoid doing certain things in order to uphold theabsolute moral rules. Consequently, it would be baseless to defendgambling on the grounds that it makes gamblers happy and gives theman opportunity to make money.

Thereare two major absolute obligations that gamblers fail to fulfill,thus indicating that gambling is an immoral action that should beavoided. First, human beings have a moral obligation to protect theirfamilies from suffering or alleviate such pain in case it alreadyexists. Gambling has been positively associated with thepsychological as well as the physical suffering of families(Rosalind, 2013). In contrast, gamblers are insensitive to the healthneeds of their family as well as their own health. In this case,gamblers should weigh between the needs of their families and theirown health needs against the uncertain benefits expected fromgambling.

Secondly,human beings have the moral duty of rendering aid to other people,including their family members, but gambling leaves gamblers with noresources to do so. This implies that gamblers fail to carry outtheir moral obligation of alleviating the pain associated withpoverty in their families, and spend their money on gambling. Forexample, it would normally be expected that a man should earn themonthly or annual income and spend it with the family, therebyaddressing the challenge (such as the payment of school fees,medical, and utility bills) that that family is facing. Addictedgamblers absconds this duty and spend a larger proportion of theirincome on gambling (McComb &amp Hanson, 2009).

Thedeontological theories also hold that human actions can be judged tobe wrong or right depending on the agents of motivation thatpressures someone to do or avoid doing certain things. This is basedon the notion that an act can only be morally right is it is done outof one’s desire to obey certain moral rules or accomplish somemoral duties (White, 2013). In the case of gambling, gamblers are, inmost cases, motivated to engage in gambling to earn more moneywithout a hard work, the desire to spend leisure time, oruncontrollable factors caused associated with addiction. Out of thethree major motivation agents, there is none that indicates thegamblers’ desires to accomplish their moral obligations. Gamblinginstead motivates people to avoid their moral obligations. Therefore,gambling is an immoral act under the deontological theories.


Virtueethics is a normative approach that focuses on the role of thecharacter of an individual as well as the virtues that the characterof an individual embodies in the process of assessing ethicalbehavior. Virtue ethics focuses less on the actual actions, butemphasis more on what those actions tell about an individual’scharacter (Rosalind, 2013). Although there is no valid law toprohibit gambling in many jurisdictions, the practice is inconsistentwith the moral standards held by the general population. To this end,practicing gambling is associated with at least three negativecharacteristics that give a negative picture of the gambler in theface of the society. First, gambling depict gamblers as greedy peoplewho intend to earn large sums of money without making any efforts andwithin a short period. This implies that the main focus of thesupporter of virtue ethics is not the act of gambling, but the factthat gambling is associated with greed.

Secondly,gambling is associated with dishonesty, which is a negative trait inthe society. A larger proportion of the general population holds,believes that gamblers are interested in getting valuable items ormoney that does not rightfully belong to them (Rosalind, 2013). Inaddition, the facts that some gamblers cheat and use tricks toachieve their means have resulted in a general perception thatgambling is dishonest practices and gamblers themselves aredishonest. Dishonest is a negative virtue that gamblers cannot avoidbeing associated with in the contemporary society.

Third,gamblers are labeled with a negative virtue of laziness, especiallyin the modern society. The wider population tends to believe thatpeople who practice gambling do so to earn descent lives, but shunhonest labor and jobs that require a hard work for one to earn anequivalent amount of money (Rosalind, 2013). Therefore, the desire tomake money without a hard work is a motivating agent for gambling. Inessence, virtue ethics depict gamblers as people with negativevirtues, which imply that gambling is an immoral act.


Relativismis a moral concept holding that moral and ethical standards differfrom one society to another and from one period to another. The basicassumption of the perspective of relativism is that moral standardsand not constant, which means that human actions and decisions cannotbe judged to be wrong or right under a given set of standards (Rai &ampHolyoak, 2013). Supporters of this perspective oppose the concept ofabsolutism by stating that there is absolute truth or objectiveorder. This implies that there is no person who has an absoluteauthority to judge gambling to be moral or immoral. Under therelativism perspective gamblers have the right to engage in thepractice as they deem it appropriate or beneficial. In addition, thefact that moral principles vary from one society to another explainsthe reason for the support of gambling in the western world comparedto the Middle East. Therefore, people should respect the views ofothers and appreciate the fact that other people may not perceive thepractice gambling the same way as they do. This is the most effectiveperspective on enhancing harmony in the society since none of themembers of the society have the moral standing to criticize the ideasof others.


Ethicaltheories (including the utilitarian, deontological, and virtualethics) and ethical perspectives (such as the relativism) are basedon different principles that help in the determination of factorsthat contribute virtuous and ethical behavior with regard to theissue of gambling. The utilitarian theory indicates that gambling canbe regarded as an immoral act in cases it minimizes the happiness ofthe gambler and the members of the family of the gambler in thelong-run. The deontological theories, on the other hand, focus on themotivation agents in determining the ethical grounds of differentactions. This means that the fact that gambling can be judged to beimmoral where the gambler is motivated by other factors other thanfulfilling some moral obligations. The virtue ethics theory does notnecessarily focus on determining whether actions are ethical or not.This theory aims at assessing the traits of an individual gambler.Relativism is an ethical perspective that does not allow people tojudge the morality of gambling since it holds that there exist nostandard principles to gauge the moral standing of actions of otherpeople. In essence the theories and perspectives considered makes iteasy to determine whether gambling is moral or not, but they may, attimes, give contradicting conclusions.


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