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Issue and Interchange

ADVOCATE 2 Response

One way the weakness of my opponent is evident, is that he refuses to endorse an example of gambling that does not have either entertainment or "business" as an underlying motive; yet neither his definition of gambling nor his list of restrictions drag these elements into the picture by necessity. Like a skillful Impressionist painter, my opponent stipples his coloration of gambling so that, depending on the angle of viewing, it looks now like an investment, now like recreation, and occasionally -- but only from a distance -- like gambling. One minute there may be the intent to return the money won; next moment, the money is merely a "prize" anyway; all of a sudden, it is merely a user fee; and on it goes. Put the qualifications all together at the same time, and you have an odd assortment of intentions that adds up to anything but gambling. Thus, though the Christian Gambling Advocate (hereafter CGA) claims to defend the notion that "gambling per se" is in the domain of Christian liberty, he has failed to isolate the element of "gambling per se" in the situations which he wishes to endorse.

An Essential Premise Elucidated

In all of this discussion, it is important to realize that there is indeed an implied premise in the definition of gambling, namely, that the reason for placing the (1) "stake" on a (2) chance outcome is the (3) desire and hope to receive back a quantity of value greater than that of the original stake. The third element is implied by the first and therefore need not be spelled out. It is the very nature of a "stake" to be born in this context; else it would simply be called a price or admission fee. To deny that the third element is entailed in the placing of the gambler's stake would be to reduce gambling to the same level as pinball, bowling, or golf. Try asking any gambler if, in placing the bet, he hopes to win back the bet and more -- he will assume you are being facetious.

Shaking out the Quiddities

CGA's cavil, that the analysis of gambling as a zero-sum game fails to account for multiple-party scenarios, is trivially false. It is a zero sum game judged in terms of the set of all participants, however large that set may be. The soundness of the simplification to two players for discussion purposes is readily apparent. Pick any player from the set of participants and call his winnings X. Now, the sum of the winnings of all other participants is (-X), for a total of zero. The implications are the same as for the case of two players with a respective win and loss of X and -X. The slot machine, similarly, only spreads the transaction out over time -- again, the essential economic relation is the same. Of course the casino or "house" is one of the players as well: other than the fact that the odds are tilted slightly in the house's favor (thus making its continued viability possible), there is no ethical difference between the house and any other player.

Here is yet another index that gambling does not involve quid pro quo: after the "transaction," the loser would prefer that he had won, and the winner is glad he didn't lose. But in free economic exchanges, each party goes away glad to have made the exchange -- preferring his final state of affairs to the state of affairs obtaining prior to the exchange.

CGA seriously misconstrues my contrast of the zero-sum game to proper economic exchange when he latches onto the tangibility of the things exchanged in my illustration. (Incidently, all economic value -- whether in reference to tangible or intangible objects -- is subjective (not objective), which is simply to say this: people rank the relative desirability of things to them based on purely individual considerations.) The propriety of spending money for the privilege of playing an amusing game is not under dispute. We must restrict the discussion to the morality of that expenditure of property staked, or placed in hock, in exchange for the right to gain more than the amount staked, based on a chance event. Otherwise, we are arguing about bowling and golf -- something I at any rate did not sign up to do.

Separating the "User Fee" From the "Gamble Per Se"

It is not hard, in principle, to draw a sharp distinction between that amount of money which is spent for entertainment, and that which is going into the gamble as such. Imagine a graph with the horizontal axis labeled "PAYOFF" and the vertical axis labeled "Price I am willing to pay to play". Starting at zero PAYOFF and increasing, plot the price you are willing to pay for the privilege of playing the game. The value plotted at PAYOFF=0 is the amount which is spent as pure "user fee". If the plotted line is perfectly flat, then there is no value being staked purely in hopes of gaining a return -- it is not a gamble, by intention, at all. On the other hand, if the line slopes upward as the PAYOFF increases, the amount of its upward movement is the amount which may be considered pure "gamble". All my arguments apply to the latter only.

If "B's nickel" (or B's broken toothpick for that matter) is payment for the fun of watching a wheel spin, with no implied hope of gaining someone else's nickel, then B's intent is to spend, not gamble. If this seems like a fine distinction, let us remember Murray's apt comment: "at the point of divergence, the difference between right and wrong is not a chasm but a razor's edge."

Are All Actions Between Consenting Adults Innocent?

To spend or to gamble. The voluntary nature of the former is essential to its legitimacy, because of the subjective nature of value and the unlawfulness of theft. The impure desire giving rise to the latter -- the desire to gain my neighbor's property, to his net loss, in "exchange" only for my giving him, in gentlemanly fashion, the "right" to gain mine in like manner -- is assumed to be voluntary (how could it be coerced?), and thus its "voluntarity" is irrelevant to its ethical standing. The world is full of examples of things assumed to be voluntary, and whose moral bankruptcy is not reduced by virtue of being voluntary: prostitution, duelling, etc. The burden of proof therefore falls squarely upon CGA to show how the voluntarism of gambling is sufficient to secure its moral soundness.

Given Many Examples, "Chances Are" at Least One Will Be Right

But alas, it is not so. Grading on a curve would be unjust if its effect were to downgrade students for statistically insignificant variations in performance-- but the injustice would not be on the part of the excelling student. A lawyer had better not pray for a verdict that he knows would be unjust. Losing the ballgame only "costs" the boy a bit of pride -- and hopefully stimulates greater effort next season.

Jesus Commands us to Gamble?

Bankruptcy is not an "abuse"; it is simply an inevitable consequence of a certain practice if persisted in indefinitely -- which practice may, therefore, rightly be called foolish. Repeated investment in real estate, or in business ventures entailing an element of risk, is not guaranteed to lead to bankruptcy -- or if it is, CGA has not given us any grounds for believing it.

Some Unfinished "Business"

CGA equivocates between gambling (in the Las Vegas sense) and "gambling" (in the sense of being an entrepreneur) as regards the advice he would give a young man starting his career: this simply begs the question. Let us imagine the hypothetical case of a gambler who gets no particular pleasure from gambling, nor does he do it as a calling. He is going to Las Vegas with the intent of gambling his entire nest egg. He hopes to win big: if he does, he will tithe; if he loses it all, he will continue living off his normal wage. Now, without entertainment or business venture to hide behind, on what ground would CGA seek to dissuade this individual from his plan?

Uncertainty, Randomness, and the Sovereignty of God

Sounds awfully metaphysical. But there seems to be enough confusion here about the nature of probability as it pertains to random events, and probability as it is referred to by investors, to warrant a slight digression.

When we speak of the probability of a random event X occurring, we mean the ratio of the number of events which can be classed as "X" to the total number of possible events. For example, list all possible hands that can be dealt to a player in a game of poker. Let this number of possible hands be N. Now, count the entries in this list containing exactly three matching cards. Let this number be T. The probability of being dealt "three of a kind", then, is T/N.

What does it mean, however, to say "there is a one-sixth chance of this business succeeding"? There is no a priori meaning to this statement, for you can't count the possible outcomes. There is no a posteriori meaning, for you can't repeat the experiment a large number of times. In short, if businessmen speak this way, it is only as a heuristic to try to quantify their level of confidence of various outcomes; this confidence, in turn, is really only an intuition derived from experience and "sixth sense."

The probability which one imputes to human action is intimately related to the extent of one's knowledge of the persons. Someone who does not know me at all, would have to assign equal probabilities to my driving north, south, east, or west, when I get into my car for the first time each morning. Someone who knows me well, on the other hand, would assign a very high probability of my driving south-- the direction I must go to get to my place of work.

We see, then, that there is a fundamental difference between the "uncertainty" of games of chance -- which can be calculated from the ratio of possible events -- and that of human events, including investments, which vary considerably with the extent of knowledge of the "players". As knowledge of the "players" grows, the quantity of relative probabilities changes.

Consequently, it is only loosely speaking that we speak of quantifiable probabilities when it comes to investments. Superior knowledge of markets, trends, management, labor relations, etc. will, on the average, pay a dividend. The nature of uncertainty is fundamentally different in the cases of gambling and investment: this reinforces the argument regarding the relation of chance to our view of God's Providence given in my first piece. Moreover, this doesn't prove that repeated investments will lead to bankruptcy. Indeed, there is no contradiction to the thought that a society could exist where no investor ever suffered actual loss (though of course there would be the potential for loss). In gambling, however, loss, if not bankruptcy, on the part of someone is guaranteed. The gambler forces the issue: either he or his neighbor will certainly lose.

Theological Misdemeanors

CGA rails against my observations of things often associated with gambling, even though I stated that the observations were not a proof. I submit that the underlying problem with CGA is his model of life as a playground. In contrast, the Biblical model, which we take from the creation account, is a garden. The garden was fundamentally a place of work, rest, fellowship, and worship. The longing for easy money, let alone the desire to trick some money from your brother by exploiting his similar desire, is something one can only imagine occurring after the fall. Let us move forward in redemptive history and pull this weed out at the roots!
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
1-23-96 tew
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